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Lentz: Toyota didn't live up to customers' needs

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Lentz: Toyota didn't live up to customers' needs

David Shepardson / Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington -- Toyota Motor Sales USA President Jim Lentz will tell Congress today that the embattled Japanese automaker "hasn't lived up to the high standards our customers" expect.

In testimony prepared for the House Energy and Commerce Committee today, Lentz said the Japanese automaker is working "to restore the trust of the tens of millions of Americans who purchase and drive our vehicles."

The Detroit News obtained advance copies of the testimony by Lentz and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

Lentz said the company has made mistakes. The testimony comes as dealers have repaired nearly 1 million vehicles as part of its recall of 6 million vehicles in the United States for sticky pedals and pedal entrapment.

LaHood said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is working to understand the causes of sudden acceleration claims that led to the recall of 8.5 million Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles worldwide.

"NHTSA will continue to make sure Toyota is doing all it has promised to make its vehicles safe," LaHood is expected to say. "And we will continue to investigate all possible causes of unintended acceleration. While the recalls are important steps in that direction, we don't maintain that they answer every question about that issue." Lentz said the company is installing brake override software on more current vehicles, including the Tacoma, Venza and Sequoia models.

"In recent months, we have not lived up to the high standards our customers and the public have come to expect from Toyota. 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," Lentz is expected to say. "The problem has also been compounded by poor communications both within our company and with regulators and consumers."

Lentz's testimony doesn't directly address why it took so long for Toyota to act, and why as recently as July it bragged in an internal presentation that a limited 2007 sudden acceleration recall saved the company more than $100 million.

It also doesn't address a criminal investigation into Toyota's recalls by a federal grand jury in New York and a civil probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Lentz reiterated that "no problems exist with the electronic throttle control system in our vehicles."

But the House Energy and Commerce Committee said Toyota failed repeatedly to seriously investigate electronic issues.

"Toyota resisted the possibility that electronic defects could cause safety concerns, relied on a flawed engineering report and made misleading public statements," the committee said in a letter to Lentz.

NHTSA has reopened a probe into whether electronic glitches are to blame for some of the runaway vehicles that have been linked to 2,600 complaints and 34 deaths since 2000.

"Some people believe that electromagnetic interference has a dangerous effect on these vehicles. Although we are not aware of any incident proven to be caused by such interference, NHTSA is doing a thorough review of that subject to ensure safety," LaHood said. "If NHTSA finds a problem, we will make sure it is resolved."

Lentz said the company made mistakes that led to delays in recalling 5.4 million vehicles for pedal entrapment complaints and 2.3 million for sticky pedal concerns.

"Why did it take so long to get to this point? With respect to pedal entrapment, Toyota conducted investigations of customer complaints which focused too narrowly on technical issues without taking full account of the way customers used our vehicles," Lentz said. "In the case of sticking accelerator pedals, we failed to promptly analyze and respond to information emerging from Europe and in the United States."

The committee is investigating the roles of Toyota and the government in the recalls, and whether each acted promptly and appropriately.

By working with Toyota on its recall of the Prius over braking issues earlier this month, the "agency avoided a lengthy investigation that would have delayed fixes for a year or more," LaHood said.

Toyota agreed to recall 437,000 hybrids worldwide, including 148,000 2010 Prius and Lexus HS 250h hybrids for software upgrades to respond to complaints that the brakes were unresponsive over uneven or icy surfaces.

NHTSA has received more than 1,100 complaints on the braking issue.

LaHood defended the agency's efforts. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has said NHTSA didn't properly investigate electronics issues on Toyotas in recent years.

"With potentially fatal defects on the road, NHTSA has pressed hard to expedite these safety fixes," LaHood said. "If NHTSA had opened a formal investigation and Toyota had resisted a recall, this would have consumed an enormous amount of time and resources, in effect extending the period in which owners of affected vehicles were at risk." NHTSA is considering civil fines of up to $16.4 million for Toyota on several recalls and opened investigations last week, LaHood noted, into "whether Toyota acted quickly enough in reporting these safety defects to NHTSA, as well as whether they took all appropriate action to protect consumers."

From The Detroit News: http://detroitnews.com/article/20100223/AUTO01/2230383/Lentz--Toyota-didn-t-live-up-to-customers--needs#ixzz0gMhza5ZW

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