WASHINGTON — The president of Toyota's American operations apologized Tuesday for the company's handling of safety issues, but he insisted to lawmakers that electronic problems were not the cause of sudden acceleration issues in some of its cars.
At a hearing mixed with harrowing personal testimony and precise technical engineering explanations, James Lentz, president and CEO of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., admitted to a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that the Japanese automaker hasn't "lived up to the high standards our customers and the public have come to expect from Toyota.
"We acknowledge these mistakes, we apologize and we have learned from them," Lentz said in his prepared testimony Tuesday. "We now understand that we must think differently when investigating complaints and communicate faster, better and more effectively with our customers and our regulators."
Toyota President Akio Toyoda will offer his own apology and accept full responsibility for the growing questions about the quality of his company's cars when he testifies Wednesday before the full House Energy and Commerce Committee.
"We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization, and we should sincerely be mindful of that," Toyoda said in testimony released in advance of the hearing. "I regret that this has resulted in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today, and I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced."
The automaker's massive recall has had a huge impact on Kentucky, which is the nation's third largest auto producer. Toyota's largest assembly plant in North America is in Georgetown.
Just over a third of the 7,000 Toyota workers in Georgetown were affected when one of the plant's assembly lines idled after the Camry and Avalon models it produces were recalled for "sticky" gas pedals provided by a supplier. Workers affected by the idling had the option of taking paid vacation or unpaid leave, but the vast majority came to work, with many taking training sessions, cleaning assembly line stations or applying new coats of paint.
Kentucky lawmakers, and members of Congress with Toyota plants in their districts, worry that the federal inquiries may lead to a witch hunt. Federal prosecutors have launched a criminal investigation into Toyota's safety troubles, the Japanese automaker confirmed Monday, as the company's leadership braces for more tough questions in congressional hearings this week.
"Toyota must put the safety of drivers first and foremost," Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear said in a statement. "However, they deserve a level and reasonable response from the federal government — one that is not tainted by the federal government's financial interest in some of Toyota's competitors."
Beshear, along with the governors of Indiana, Mississippi and Alabama, are urging congressional investigators to treat the Japanese automaker fairly. All four states have Toyota plants.
Lentz maintained that a pedal problem, not an electronics one, is at the center of sudden acceleration issues that have forced Toyota to recall 8 million cars.
"We are confident that no problem exists with the electronic throttle control system in our vehicles," Lentz testified. "We have designed our electronic throttle system with multiple failsafe mechanisms to shut off or reduce engine power in the event of a system failure."
But Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testified that the possibility of an electronics problem could not be ruled out.
"We will continue to investigate all possible causes of unintended acceleration," LaHood said in prepared testimony, adding, "We don't maintain that they answer every question" about the cause of the sudden acceleration.
Lentz's apologies and LaHood's explanations didn't satisfy some lawmakers. Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Toyota "failed its customers" by not swiftly reacting to the number of acceleration complaints. He added that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration —which is under LaHood's purview — "neglected its responsibilities" by not aggressively investigating consumer complaints about Toyota cars.
"Toyota had three responses: First, blame the driver. Second, blame the floormat. Third, blame a sticky gas pedal," Waxman said. "And NHTSA —without doing any meaningful independent review —accepted Toyota's explanation."
The subcommittee heard from two analysts who suggested that electronics failure should not be ruled out as the source of Toyota's problems. Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies Inc., a research and advocacy firm, said that instead of concentrating on the source of the problem, Toyota has stonewalled consumers.
"For years the company has ignored or blamed its consumers," Kane said. "Instead of listening carefully to the safety issues consumers have presented them, Toyota has turned them away, assuring them that nothing is wrong."
Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., blasted the research conducted by Kane's firm and by David Gilbert, an associate professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University.
Buyer, who has a Subaru-Toyota plant in his district, noted that Kane's research into Toyota's sudden acceleration complaints were funded by five law firms that have cases against the company.
The subcommittee got a sense of what it's like to drive a car suddenly out of control from Rhonda Smith. Her Toyota-made Lexus suddenly raced to 100 mph while she was on an October 2006 drive.
"I had the emergency brake on while frantically shifting between all the gears —besides park —but mainly I had it in reverse and with the emergency brake on," the Tennessee woman said in her written testimony. "I finally figured the car was going to go to its maximum speed and was praying to God to help me."
Smith said she concluded that after speeding for three miles that it must be her time to die, and she telephoned her husband.
"I knew he couldn't help me in this particular situation, but I just needed to hear his voice," she said. "At almost six miles, God intervened."
Smith said she and her husband were treated shabbily by Toyota and NHTSA when they reported the problem. The couple wound up paying for repairs on their Lexus out of their own pockets.
"Shame on you, Toyota, for being greedy," Smith said after her tearful testimony. "Shame on you, NHTSA, for not doing your job."