The president of Toyota's operations apologized for the company's handling of safety issues Tuesday 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.
Toyota's James Lentz and LaHood presented differing views in prepared testimony before the House Energy and Commerce 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."
In his written testimony, 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, certain to face hostile questioning from lawmakers, 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 stuck gas pedals were caused by one of two problems — misplaced floor mats and sticking accelerator pedals.
"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, also to testify Tuesday, said in his prepared testimony 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.
Also being heard from Tuesday are drivers like Rhonda Smith, a Sevierville, Tenn., woman whose 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 will precede testimony by safety experts — and set the tone for the hearing. Toyota executives and the secretary of transportation also will be at the witness table. 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.
Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles to fix acceleration problems in several models and braking issues in the 2010 hybrid Prius.
"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, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.
More than 150 Toyota dealers gathered in the Capitol Tuesday morning 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.
At a news conference in advance of the hearing Tuesday morning, some complained the government is picking on Toyota, even though there have been dozens of recalls of other automakers' vehicles in the past year. Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the subcommittee, wrote Toyota that the company 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 wrote the transportation secretary that his agency lacked the expertise and the will to conduct a thorough investigation.
Toyota revealed Monday that federal prosecutors and the Securities and Exchange Commission are now investigating the company's safety problems and what it told government investigators.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the department's investigation includes the possibility that interference with electronics had a role in sudden acceleration.
"Although we are not aware of any incident proven to be caused by such interference, NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) is doing a thorough review of that subject to ensure safety," the secretary said. "If NHTSA finds a problem, we will make sure it is resolved."
Committee investigators have made preliminary findings that the government was slow to respond to 2,600 complaints of sudden unintended acceleration from 2000 to 2010.
LaHood countered, "Every step of the way, NHTSA officials have pushed Toyota to take corrective action so that consumers would be safe."
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.
In an opinion piece published by The Wall Street Journal, Toyoda acknowledged that 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 Toyoda.
Associated Press reporter Alan Fram contributed to this story from Washington.
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