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Toyota Executive Says Electronics Aren't At Fault

Eddie and Rhonda Smith of Sevierville, Tenn., testify Tuesday about a near-miss in her runaway Lexus in October 2006.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Eddie and Rhonda Smith of Sevierville, Tenn., testify Tuesday about a near-miss in her runaway Lexus in October 2006.

The head of Toyota's U.S. operations told a House panel Tuesday that electronic controls were not an issue in the sudden acceleration of vehicles that led to a massive recall, despite criticism from lawmakers and emotional testimony from a Tennessee woman about a harrowing six-mile ride in a runaway Lexus.

James Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, said company engineers have identified two mechanical problems that cause unintended acceleration: loose floor mats that entrap accelerator pedals, and pedals that stick because of wear.

He was adamant that electronic controls have been tested and retested, and no problems have been found. "We have done extensive testing of this system and have never found a malfunction that caused unintended acceleration," Lentz said.

But lawmakers appeared unconvinced. Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's investigative subcommittee, said the panel's review showed Toyota received as many as 2,600 complaints of runaway vehicles through its telephone hotline alone. More than 700 of the complaints involved accidents.

Retired social worker Rhonda Smith gave a harrowing account of a near-miss in her runaway Lexus in October 2006. After entering a freeway near her Sevierville, Tenn., home, Smith said the car began to accelerate, zooming down the highway at 100 mph as she tried in vain to get the car to stop.

She testified that she called her husband on the car's Bluetooth system, believing it would be the last time she would ever hear his voice. "After six miles, God intervened. As the car came very slowly to a stop, I pulled it very slowly to the left median," she said.

Smith said she did not believe floor mats were the cause of her unintended acceleration. The electrical controls were not tested. "Shame on you Toyota for being so greedy, and shame on you NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] for not doing your job," she said.

Lentz apologized for the company's slowness in addressing safety issues in some models and pledged to redouble commitment to quality control during the first of three congressional hearings on problems that have led to massive recalls.

"In recent months, we have not lived up to the high standards our customers and the public have come to expect from Toyota," he said. "Put simply, it has taken us too long to come to grips with a rare but serious set of safety issues, despite all of our good faith efforts."

Lentz acknowledged that the company didn't heed customers' complaints about accelerator pedals that stuck or got wedged in floor mats, but maintained that the company has acted in good faith.

Stupak accused the company of putting profits ahead of customers and misleading drivers about safety. "Toyota all but ignored pleas from consumers to examine sudden unintended acceleration events," Stupak said. "They boast in a briefing of saving Toyota $100 million by negotiating a limited recall."

Toyota President Akio Toyoda, who is set to testify at a separate hearing Wednesday, issued a statement taking full responsibility for the company's failures.

"We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization. I regret that this has resulted in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today, and I am sincerely sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced," said Toyoda, grandson of the company's founder.

Toyoda also apologized to the family of California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor, who was killed with members of his family when they could not stop their runaway Lexus. A member of the Saylor family, Fe Lastrella, also is slated to testify Wednesday before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

Three congressional panels are investigating Toyota's problems. The hearings are important because Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles worldwide — more than 6 million in the United States — since last fall because of sudden acceleration problems in multiple models, braking issues in the Prius hybrid and steering concerns in Corollas. People with Toyotas have complained of their vehicles speeding out of control in their efforts to slow down, sometimes resulting in deadly crashes. The government has received complaints of 34 deaths linked to sudden acceleration of Toyota vehicles since 2000.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the House panel that problems with Toyota's electronic controls could not be ruled out.

He said a department investigation includes the possibility that interference with electronics did play a role in sudden acceleration. Federal prosecutors and the Securities and Exchange Commission are investigating the safety problems and what the company told government investigators.

"Although we are not aware of any incident proven to be caused by such interference, NHTSA is doing a thorough review of that subject to ensure safety," LaHood said in prepared testimony. "If NHTSA finds a problem, we will make sure it is resolved."

Lentz said 1,500 U.S. dealers are in the midst of completing repairs to recalled vehicles, and some are staying open 24 hours every day of the week.

About 100 Toyota dealers planned to be in Washington this week to urge Congress to be fair. They're concerned that lawmakers will scare their customers and further drive down sales. They maintain that other carmakers also have had complaints about unintended acceleration.

Dealerships across the country are retrofitting the gas pedals on millions of Toyota vehicles. Robert Boch, who co-owns Boston's Expressway Toyota with his brother, said the recall effort so far has been going smoothly.

The dealership has plenty of parts to make the repairs, and customers don't appear to be panicked about the recall, Boch said. Still, with Boston's brutal winters, he acknowledged that he's having a difficult time persuading drivers not to stack up multiple mats in their cars to protect the floorboards from snow and salt.

"Like your Italian grandmother used to have, you go to the house and there'd be plastic vinyl on all the furniture, on the couch," Boch said. "The first they [car owners] do is put plastic vinyl down on everything in the car, then a floor mat down, then a winter floor mat on top of that. And you try to convince these people to take them out, and even now, they don't want to do it."

Boch said his sales were down by 20 percent over the recent President's Day holiday.

Despite the growing controversy, Consumer Reports' annual auto issue ranked the Toyota Prius and the Honda Fit as the best new car values of the year, beating out more than 280 other models.

The magazine said both cars have excellent reliability, and that the Prius gas-and-electric hybrid performed even better than the Honda Fit in a battery of road tests.

With additional reporting from NPR's Frank Langfitt, Pam Fessler, Chris Arnold and Brian Naylor and The Associated Press.

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