Politics

Toyota Apologizes but Lacks Answers on Safety Issues

  • James E. Lentz, president and chief operating officer, Toyota Motor Sales, USA,Inc., testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2010, before the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee hearing on Toyota. (AP)

    James E. Lentz, president and chief operating officer, Toyota Motor Sales, USA,Inc., testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2010, before the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee hearing on Toyota. (AP)

  • James E. Lentz, president and chief operating officer, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc., arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2010, to testify before the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee. (AP)

    James E. Lentz, president and chief operating officer, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Inc., arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2010, to testify before the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee. (AP)

Congressional hearings on safety issues at Toyota got off to a lively start Tuesday, with Toyota executives facing sharp questioning from lawmakers, hearing a tearful testimony from a survivor of a near-crash and offered their apologies for their handling of vehicle recalls.

But at the end of the day, it was clear that the Japanese automaker still didn't have all the answers.

Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles to fix acceleration problems in several models and braking issues in the 2010 hybrid Prius. But James Lentz, president and chief operating Officer of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., admitted that may not be enough.

"Not totally," Lentz said when asked by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif, if the recall will solve the acceleration problems.

Lentz said Toyota needs to "continue to be vigilant and continue to investigate all of the complaints that we get from consumers."

But that didn't satisfy lawmakers.

Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, the ranking Republican member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told Lentz to find the cars that are defective and study them.

"Get the car and tear the damn thing apart," Barton said. "If you don't go where the problem is, you're never going to find it out."

A Tennessee woman who says she had a "near-death experience" behind the wheel of a defective Toyota vehicle tearfully lashed out at the Japanese automaker and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Rhonda Smith, who at one time broke down in tears during her testimony, blamed Toyota and NHTSA officials for not doing more earlier before 

"Shame on you Toyota for being so greedy," Smith said. "Shame on you NHTSA for not doing your job. I hope Toyota and NHTSA will be held accountable for decisions that have cost some people their lives."

Lentz apologized for the company's action's while insisting that electronic problems did not contribute to sudden acceleration of its cars. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood argued that such a possibility could not be ruled out.

Though investigators believe Toyota has dragged its corporate feet in dealing with safety issues, Lentz said he understands how it feels to lose a loved one in a car accident -- recounting how he lost a brother in an accident 20 years ago.

"And there's not day that goes by that I don't think of that," he said, voice cracking. "So I know what these families go through."

But that didn't stop lawmakers from administering the public flogging they dished out to company executives.

Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, chairman of the subcommittee on Energy and Commerce, said what he found in his review was "quite troubling." 

"Toyota all but ignored pleas from consumers to examine sudden unintended acceleration events," he said. "They claim that they first became aware of sticking pedals in late October of 2009, when in fact they received numerous complaints many months and years earlier."

Smith testified  that her Toyota-made Lexus suddenly zoomed to 100 miles per hour as she tried to get it to stop -- shifting to neutral, trying to throw the car into reverse and hitting the emergency brake. Finally, her car slowed down before she crashed.

Smith wrote down her feelings after the 2006 scare, saying she had "a near death experience, which occurred on October 12, 2006, between approximately 10:50 and 11:00 a.m. At almost exactly 6 miles God intervened" and slowed the car. She said that nothing she had tried had worked.

Smith's description of her nightmare ride in October 2006 preceded testimony by safety experts -- and set the tone for the hearing. Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's investigative panel were armed with preliminary staff findings that Toyota and the government failed to protect the public.

Lentz and LaHood presented differing views in prepared testimony before the committee's investigative panel, the first of three congressional panels holding hearings on Toyota's problems.

Lentz, speaking with reporters on his way into the hearing room, said safety was Toyota's top priority "and we are committed to a great relationship with both Congress and our regulators."

During the hearing, Lentz apologized for the company's slow handling of problems in its vehicles, saying it took too long to confront the issue. "We have not lived up to the high standards our customers and the public have come to expect from Toyota," he said.

Lentz said that Toyota had poor communications within the company, with government regulators and with its customers.

At the same time, he repeated Toyota's insistence that the pedal problems were caused by one of two issues -- misplaced floor mats and the sticking of the pedals themselves.

"We are confident that no problems exist with the electric throttle control system in our vehicles," he said. He cited "fail-safe mechanisms" in the cars were designed to shut off or reduce engine power "in the event of a system failure."

But LaHood said that the government's investigation of Toyota includes the possibility that electric problems had a role in sudden acceleration.

"We will continue to investigate all possible causes of unintended acceleration," LaHood said. He said that the thousands of recalls by Toyota were important steps but "we don't maintain that they answer every question" about causes of sudden acceleration.

"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," said Lentz.

More than 150 Toyota dealers gathered in the Capitol Tuesday before the hearing to lobby lawmakers in support of the carmaker. Many wore buttons saying, "I am Toyota in America."

"We made a choice, a conscious decision, to be part of something, rather than just submit to it," said Tammy Darvish, a Washington area dealer who helped organize the action, which Toyota also helped coordinate.

Tuesday's hearing, along with a second House hearing Wednesday, present a high bar in the company's attempts to persuade the public it cares about safety.

Toyota dealers are complaining that the besieged automaker is being treated unfairly by the U.S. government. Some have questioned the government's impartiality because it has invested billions in two competitors. The U.S. owns a majority stake in General Motors after bailing out the company last year. It also owns a smaller portion of Chrysler.

On Wednesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hear from company president Akio Toyoda, who is expected to speak to the committee and the American public through a translator.

Fox News' Brian Wilson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.