Toyota Exec's Recall Answers Leave Lawmakers Fuming

If lawmakers were looking for answers to explain Toyota Motor's (TM) recall of some 6 million cars nationwide, they invited the wrong company executive to provide them. Time after time, James Lentz, the company's president of U.S. sales, responded to questions posed by members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce by saying, "I don't know." That's because, as Lentz explained, decisions about safety are made by Toyota management in Tokyo.Still, that didn't prevent committee members from continuing to grill Lentz about Toyota's seeming foot-dragging in looking into complaints about unintended acceleration in its vehicles -- and why it isn't doing more to investigate problems and assuage consumer concern.

Of the more than 2,200 complaints filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration about Toyota vehicles that accelerate suddenly and uncontrollably, only 30% are covered under existing recalls, said committee member Bart Stupak. The Michigan Democrat asked why Toyota officials' suspicion wasn't aroused after complaints of unintended acceleration reported to NHTSA increased 400% in 2004, two years after the company began installing electronic throttle control systems (ETCS) in its cars in 2002. So called "drive-by-wire" systems eliminate the mechanical connection between accelerator pedals and the engine throttle.

System Easy To 'Fool'?

Speaking earlier Tuesday, an expert testified that Toyota's ETCS was likely responsible for some instances of unintended acceleration. David Gilbert, professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University, said he had recreated the sudden unintended acceleration problem in laboratory tests, by introducing circuit faults into the ETCS without tripping trouble codes that would alert to a problem.

Gilbert said he was surprised how quickly he was able to "fool" the system, noting that he was not able to recreate same response in two vehicles manufactured by competitors. The importance of the problems raised in his tests shouldn't be underestimated, Gilbert said. "Sudden unintended acceleration ... is a very serious safety concern that should be addressed without delay."

When pressed by committee Chairman Henry Waxman, a Democrat from Los Angeles, as to why Toyota hasn't been more vigilant into looking into a possible electronic glitch as a cause for unintended acceleration, Lentz said Toyota's own tests didn't reveal ETCS to be a source of the problem. Still, he said, Toyota needs to remain vigilant and investigate complaints, better than in the past.

Repeating Toyota's Position

During his testimony, Lentz repeated Toyota's position that stuck gas pedals in some of the company's most popular models were caused by one of two problems -- misplaced floor mats and sticking accelerator pedals.

Meanwhile, Toyota president Akio Toyoda, who will testify before a separate panel on Wednesday, said he took "full responsibility" for the uncertainty felt by Toyota owners and offered his condolences to a San Diego, Calif., family who were killed in late August, reigniting interest in the problems.

"I will do everything in my power to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again," Toyoda said in prepared testimony for Wednesday's hearing to the House Government Oversight Committee. "My name is on every car. You have my personal commitment that Toyota will work vigorously and unceasingly to restore the trust of our customers," Toyoda said.

Corolla's Steering Concerns

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 and braking issues in the Prius hybrid.

Authorities are also looking into 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 panel in his prepared testimony that possible electronics problems were not being dismissed and were being investigated by his agency.

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

The Associated Press also contributed to this report.
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