Rhonda Smith's story of six miles of interstate terror, as her Lexus suddenly zoomed to 100 miles per hour, will set the mood Tuesday for the first congressional hearing on Toyota's acceleration problems.
The Sevierville, Tenn., 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 testimony by safety experts, Toyota's U.S. president and the secretary of transportation 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, 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 of 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 Securities and Exchange Commission are now investigating the company's safety problems and what it told government investigators.
Lentz, in prepared, written testimony, apologized for the company's conduct.
"In recent months, we have not lived up to the high standards our customers and the public have come to expect from Toyota," Lentz said. "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."
He cited poor communications "both within our company and with regulators and consumers."
But Lentz was defiant on one point, asserting that Toyota is confident "no problems exist with the electronic throttle control system in our vehicles. We have designed our electronic throttle control system with multiple fail-safe mechanisms to shut off or reduce engine power in the event of a system failure."
Stupak wrote Lentz on Monday that committee investigators believe he's relying on a flawed study to reach that conclusion.
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.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in written, prepared testimony, assured Americans that his agency will ensure the safety of Toyota vehicles. He added 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."
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