Under relentless questioning from a congressional panel, a top Toyota executive said Tuesday that the automaker hadn’t ruled out electronics as a potential cause of sudden acceleration, and conceded that fixing floor mats and sticking gas pedals would “not totally” solve the problem.
James E. Lentz, Toyota’s top U.S. sales executive, also apologized for a series of missteps that allowed the sudden acceleration problem to go unchecked for years, ultimately leading Toyota to issue nearly 10 million recall notices and temporarily halt sales of eight models.
Lentz blamed the company’s rapid growth in recent years, and acknowledged that it suffered from poor communications, both within its ranks as well as with its customers.
He repeated Toyota’s assertion that floor mats and sticky gas pedals were behind the sudden acceleration problem. But he also held out the potential for other causes, the first time a Toyota executive has publicly done so.
Sudden acceleration, he said, “has many, many causes,” adding that transmission software problems, faulty cruise control and even engine revs caused by engaging the air conditioner could trigger sudden acceleration events.
His testimony came before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee in the first of three congressional hearings called to investigate how Toyota and federal safety officials handled the sudden-acceleration problem. Other Toyota officials, including President Akio Toyoda, are scheduled to appear Wednesday and early next week.
Lentz told the committee that the automaker planned to install an electronic program that allows the brake to override the throttle on a larger number of its vehicles than previously announced, but stopped short of promising to install it on all the millions of Toyotas already on the road.
Asked what solace he could offer Toyota owners who will not get the new safeguard, he said the “probability is slim” that they would have problems.
Later in the day, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testified that federal regulators would “look into” requiring all vehicles to have a brake override.
LaHood was asked whether regulators moved quickly and effectively to address the complaints of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles. Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) told LaHood there needed to be “fundamental reform” of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is overseen by the Transportation Department.
“We may be coming to you and asking you for some legislative remedies,” LaHood responded.
Overall, LaHood defended his agency’s handling of the sudden acceleration problem but acknowledged that his investigators had trouble getting Toyota to release information.
He also confirmed that NHTSA has just two electrical engineers on staff, out of 125 engineers total, but that they were “about to add another one.” Waxman and others contend that NHTSA isn’t equipped to regulate cars that increasingly are governed by electronic components.
Indeed, the role of electronics was the recurrent theme at Tuesday’s hearing. With dozens of reporters and television cameras present, members of the committee pressed Lentz on the potential for sudden acceleration to be caused by malfunctions in its electronic throttle system.
“You have been evasive,” said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.). “What is your apology based on? Is this a problem from an engineering standpoint that you take responsibility for?”
That sentiment was echoed by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who accused the company of “trying to sweep everything under the rug.”
Lentz, who said he had no direct control over safety and quality issues, at times appeared shaken by the line of questioning. At one point he choked up as he mentioned that his brother had died in a car accident. “There’s not a week that goes by that I don’t think of him,” he said.
Earlier in the all-day hearing, several witnesses testified that Toyota vehicles did appear to have an electronics-related problem.
David Gilbert, a professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University, said he had been able to “defeat” a key part of the safety features built into the electronic throttle control system on Toyota vehicles in just 3 1/2 hours. “The initial findings question the integrity and consistency of” Toyota’s throttle system, he said.
That work was commissioned by Sean Kane, president of an auto safety consulting firm and also a witness at the hearing, for $1,800, plus $150 an hour for future study, the committee learned.
Rep. Steve Buyer (R-Ind.), noting that Toyota had a joint-venture assembly plant in his state, questioned the validity of the study. He said it was paid for, indirectly, by plaintiff lawyers that are suing Toyota.
Kane said he did receive money from such lawyers for his work, but said that did not affect the study. “I am uncomfortable with your advocacy, and I just want you to know that,” Buyer said.
In turn, other lawmakers questioned the financial underpinnings of a study commissioned by Toyota from a California engineering firm, Exponent Inc. A preliminary Exponent report, released this month, indicated no problems with Toyota’s electronics, although Lentz conceded that it had not yet reviewed the software controlling the throttle system.
Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) noted that the firm had been hired by a law firm, Bowman and Brooke, that usually represents Toyota in product liability suits and that Exponent has received tens of millions of dollars a year in fees from the auto industry in general.
“How much has Toyota paid Exponent?” Braley asked Lentz, who replied that he did not know but confirmed that Toyota had worked with the firm in the past.
The most emotional testimony of the day came from Rhonda Smith, a Tennessee woman who experienced what she termed a terrifying bout of unintended acceleration in a 2006 Lexus ES four years ago.
Sobbing, Smith described reaching speeds of 90 mph without her feet on the pedal and finding the brakes and shifting into neutral to be ineffective in stopping the car. She said the cause was definitely not floor mats, yet described being made to feel like a liar by Toyota employees who contended the Lexus was in working order.
“Shame on Toyota for being so greedy,” Smith said, also pointing her finger at NHTSA for not doing more about unintended acceleration earlier. “Shame on NHTSA for not doing their job.”
For its part, Toyota plans to launch a “swat team” of specialists that would investigate vehicles with safety troubles within 24 hours and to create at least two new committees to upgrade the ability of the company to address safety problems in the U.S., moving away from the tight control exercised by its Japan headquarters until now, Lentz said.
Whether that will be effective remains to be seen. On Sunday, congressional investigators released a Toyota document that showed employees boasting they had saved at least $100 million by negotiating a floor mat recall in a 2007 NHTSA investigation of sudden acceleration.
“It’s unacceptable when companies pay more attention to their costs than the safety of their customers,” said Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio). “Consumers deserve better.”