WASHINGTON – Toyota executives face tough questioning Tuesday at the first congressional hearing on the Japanese automaker's sudden acceleration problems and the company's handling of the safety issue.
In an opinion piece published by The Wall Street Journal, Toyota's president acknowledged the automaker had stumbled badly.
"It is clear to me that in recent years we didn't listen as carefully as we should — or respond as quickly as we must — to our customers' concerns," wrote Akio Toyoda, who is the grandson of the company's founder.
In his opinion piece, Toyoda vowed to oversee "fundamental changes" in the way the automaker handles current and future safety problems. He said he was looking forward to discussing the "back-to-basics" approach Wednesday when he is scheduled to testify before U.S. lawmakers.
Rhonda Smith, who experienced six miles (10 kilometers) of interstate terror, when her Lexus suddenly zoomed to 100 mph (160 kph), will set the mood for Tuesday's hearing.
The Sevierville, Tennessee, woman shifted to neutral. She tried to throw the car into reverse. She hit the emergency brake. Nothing. Then, her Toyota-made car miraculously slowed down before she crashed.
Smith's description of her nightmare ride in October 2006 will precede safety experts, Toyota's U.S. president and the secretary of transportation in testimony Tuesday. Members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's investigative panel will be armed with preliminary staff findings that Toyota and the government failed to protect the public.
Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, chairman of the subcommittee, wrote Toyota that the company had misled the public by failing to reveal that misplaced floor mats and sticking gas pedals accounted for only some of the acceleration problems. He said the company resisted the possibility that electronics problems were the cause.
And he told Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a letter that his agency lacked the expertise and will to thoroughly investigate Toyota, which has recalled 8.5 million vehicles to fix acceleration problems in several models and braking issues in the 2010 hybrid Prius.
Tuesday's hearing, along with a second House hearing Wednesday, present a high bar in the company's attempts to convince the public it cares about safety.
James Lentz, president and chief operating Officer of Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Inc., won't have the benefit of speaking to consumers in company ads Tuesday.
Rather, he'll have to convince customers of company sincerity while facing expected hostile questioning from lawmakers venting their anger before television cameras.
The atmosphere outside the hearing won't be pleasant for the company, either. Toyota revealed Monday that federal prosecutors and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission are now investigating the company's safety problems and what it told government investigators.
This has created new public relations challenges for Toyota plus the prospects — however likely or unlikely — of hefty federal fines or even indictments against executives in the U.S. and Japan. They also complicate Toyota's ability to discuss details driving its recall of millions of vehicles because anything executives say could be used against the company inside a courtroom.
On Wednesday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform will hear from company president Toyoda, who is expected to speak to the committee through a translator.
Dozens of Toyota dealers from around the U.S. plan to lobby members of Congress Tuesday and Wednesday to stress the automaker's safety efforts and remind lawmakers that the company is a source of jobs in every congressional district. The visits, coordinated with Toyota, will also involve factory employees.
LaHood, who testifies Tuesday, is expected to assure Americans that the government is addressing the possibility that electromagnetic interference played a role in the acceleration problems.
LaHood also will remind Americans that his agency is investigating whether Toyota acted quickly enough in reporting defects and took appropriate action to protect consumers. The government has demanded that the company turn over a wide range of documents.
Stupak said Monday that documents and interviews demonstrate that Toyota relied on a flawed engineering report to reassure the public that it found the answer to the acceleration problem.
In his letter to Toyota, he said a review of consumer complaints shows company personnel identified sticking pedals or floor mats as the cause of only 16 percent of the unintended acceleration reports.
Some 70 percent of the acceleration incidents in Toyota's customer call database involved vehicles that are not subject to the 2009 and 2010 floor mat and "sticky pedal" recalls.
In a letter to LaHood, Stupak raised questions about whether the transportation agency lacked the expertise to review defects in vehicle electronics and said it was slow to respond to 2,600 complaints of sudden unintended acceleration from 2000 to 2010.
As regulators looked into reports that accelerator pedals were becoming jammed in floor mats on Lexus ES350 sedans, a Toyota safety official told colleagues that government officials didn't appear concerned.
"I ran into a lot of different investigators and (Office of Defect Investigations) staff and when asked why I was there, when I told them for the (Lexus) ES350 floor mats, they either laughed or rolled their eyes in disbelief," wrote Chris Santucci, a former government transportation safety employee.
House investigators said they believe Toyota intentionally resisted the possibility that electronic defects caused unintended acceleration in their vehicles and then misled the public into thinking its recalls would fix all the problems.
Toyoda contends the automaker simply did a poor job of diagnosing the safety issues. "While we investigated malfunctions in good faith, we focused too narrowly on technical issues without taking full account of how our customers use our vehicles," he wrote in the Journal.
Documents turned over by the company could raise concerns in Congress over whether Toyota put profits ahead of customer safety and pushed regulators to narrow recalls' scope.
Toyota has said its "first priority is the safety of our customers" and promised changes, including an outside review of company operations, more focus on responding to customer complaints and improving communication with federal officials.
In his letter to Lentz, Stupak wrote that the committee's "preliminary assessment is that Toyota resisted the possibility that electronic defects could cause safety concerns, relied on a flawed engineering report, and made misleading public statements concerning the adequacy of recent recalls to address the risk of sudden unintended acceleration."