James Lentz testifies during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing… (Mark Wilson / Getty Images )
Reporting from Los Angeles and Washington — Under withering questioning from a congressional committee Tuesday, a top Toyota executive said that the automaker still hasn't ruled out electronics as a potential cause of sudden acceleration, acknowledging that fixing floor mats and sticking pedals would "not totally" solve the problem.
Speaking before the House Commerce and Energy Committee for over two hours, James E. Lentz, Toyota's top U.S. sales executive, apologized for what he said was poor communication inside the company and with its customers that led to the recall of nearly 10 million vehicles.
"The two fixes solve the problems that we know of," said Lentz, noting that the company was awaiting results of two studies of whether electronics in Toyota and Lexus vehicles could cause them to accelerate out of control.
His testimony came 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 Chief Executive Akio Toyoda, are scheduled to appear Wednesday and early next week.
In response to what he characterized as a communications breakdown between customers and company safety engineers, Lentz told the committee that the automaker would soon implement a "swat team" of specialists who would investigate vehicles with safety troubles within 24 hours.
In addition, the company plans 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 of the millions of Toyota vehicles already on the road.
His remarks about the potential causes goes to the heart of the congressional investigators' concern about the problem of sudden acceleration and how Toyota has responded to the safety crisis. The panel is also looking at how U.S. regulators from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration dealt with the company.
Did the recall solve the problem, asked committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman, (D-Beverly Hills).
"Not totally," Lentz replied, but adding that Toyota's recall would resolve the bulk of the issue.
In a day of hearings, the panel also heard from motorists forced to deal with the acceleration and safety experts who questioned whether the mechanical repairs would fix the problem.
In a tearful recounting, Rhonda Smith of Sevierville, Tenn., told the panel how her Lexus dangerously and suddenly sped up to 100 mph in 2006.
"I prayed for God to help me," Smith said as she recalled how she pumped the brakes. Finally, she called her husband. "I knew he could not help me, but I wanted to hear his voice one more time."
When the vehicle finally dropped to 35 mph, Smith said she was finally able to turn off the engine. Smith was especially caustic about the brakes, which the company said were designed to override the accelerator.
"This is a lie," she said.
"Shame on you, Toyota," Smith said.
"I'm embarrassed for what happened," Lentz said of Smith's ordeal. He said Toyota was putting in new brakes that could override the gas pedal.
Toyota President Toyoda will take responsibility for Toyota's safety woes and will apologize to any motorist who had to deal with sudden acceleration, according to his prepared remarks.
Toyoda is expected to offer condolences for an unintended acceleration incident that killed a San Diego family in late August. It was that accident that helped lead to the current congressional probes.
"I will do everything in my power to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again," Toyoda says in the prepared statement.
"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 says.
Toyoda's apology will carry special weight because he is the grandson of the company's founder.
Yoshimi Inaba, president of Toyota Motor North America and chairman of Toyota Motor Sales USA Inc., will also apologize during his Wednesday appearance.
In one of the more dramatic moments, Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), the longest-serving member of the House and a longtime advocate for the auto industry that is crucial to his Detroit district, challenged Lentz in a series of crisp questions about whether the company's recalls had totally solved the company's problems.
Lentz looked uncomfortable as he was peppered with questions.
"I'm just a poor Polish lawyer from Detroit. Can you please just tell me in yes or no," Dingell pressed. "Have you ruled out non-mechanical failure, yes or no?"
"We have not ruled it out," Lentz replied.
In addition to asking about the cause of the recall, Dingell questioned when Toyota first knew of the problem, then followed with questions about Japan's control of the company, Japanese auto standards and specific test results.
When Lentz couldn't supply one-word answers, Dingell angrily retorted: "Please submit that for the record."