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Sudden acceleration fix still an issue, Toyota says

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Sudden acceleration fix still an issue, Toyota says

Lentz testifies automaker unsure it knows all causes of safety problem

Christine Tierney, David Shepardson and Alisa Priddle / The Detroit News

Toyota Motor Corp. raised more questions about the safety of its vehicles than it answered Tuesday during a congressional hearing filled with dramatic moments and harsh exchanges.

The Japanese automaker's top-ranked American executive told a House committee that Toyota's massive recalls may "not totally" solve the problem of unintended acceleration in its vehicles and that the company was not "completely certain" that it knew all the causes.

"We need to continue to be vigilant and we need to investigate all complaints from consumers," said James Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, adding that the company had been slow to do so.

Rhonda Smith of Sevierville, Tenn., told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee of the terror she felt Oct. 12, 2006, as she struggled to slow down her racing Lexus ES350 sedan on a freeway. She repeatedly punched the stop/start ignition button. She stomped on the brakes. Feeling desperate, she called her husband. "I knew he could not help me but I wanted to hear his voice," she said, wiping away tears. Six miles down the road, she managed to regain control of the car.

Lentz also teared up at one moment as he recalled his 30-year-old brother, who was killed in a car crash years ago.

Under tough questioning from several congressmen, Lentz rejected suggestions that Toyota had concealed problems and defects. "It's not in our interest if a problem exists to not find it," he said.

But he was often at a loss for answers, saying decisions about defects and recalls were made in Japan.

Another House committee will have an opportunity today when Toyota President Akio Toyoda appears as the most anticipated witness of the hearings.

During a rough exchange with Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, Lentz was visibly rattled. Backing off from Toyota's previous declarations that it had found no fault with the electronics, Lentz said: "We never rule out anything."

He offered no explanation when Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, asked him about reports that 70 percent of the complaints to the company about unintended acceleration were from owners of models not included in the recalls.

Lentz also conceded the limits of his authority, responding several times that discussions about defects and decisions about recalls are conducted in Japan, where Toyota is headquartered.

Lentz is a top sales and marketing manager in Toyota's U.S. sales arm, which is separate from its U.S. manufacturing and engineering subsidiary.

"I felt very, very sorry for him going through this," said Maryann Keller, an auto analyst and head of Maryann Keller & Associates in Stamford, Conn.

"He's going to be pilloried for things he had no responsibility for, and couldn't have had answers to," she said.

Dingell, a champion of the U.S. auto industry, seemed to relish the opportunity to go after Toyota after all the pain and humiliation his Detroit constituents had suffered. Last year, the heads of Detroit's automakers were ridiculed as panhandlers when they came to Washington to ask for loans.

Citing the U.S. government's stakes in General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC, Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, said the subcommittee has "an inherent conflict of interest" and is "not a disinterested panel."

But when Dingell asked Lentz if he believed that the U.S. government's stakes in the Detroit automakers was influencing its treatment of Toyota, Lentz replied he did not. "I believe the government's acting fairly."

LaHood aggressive

Toyota has been under a harsh glare since September, when it announced its biggest U.S. recall to prevent unintended acceleration. It has recalled around 8.5 million vehicles worldwide, including 6 million in the United States, mainly for acceleration-related issues.

Toyota has outlined remedies that include shortening and redesigning pedals to prevent them from sticking or getting trapped by loose or ill-fitting floor mats. It also is making changes to the floor to increase the clearance with the pedal. As an additional fail-safe measure, Toyota is introducing an electronic brake override feature on new vehicles and retro-fitting it on many existing models. The company previously expressed more confidence that its fixes would eliminate the risk of unintended acceleration.

The U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Safety Traffic Administration faced similar questions at the hearing, but Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood fielded them more aggressively.

LaHood repeated his earlier assertions that Toyota's Japanese executives were "safety-deaf" and said that he would meet with Toyoda this week.

'Many different causes'

Several committee members said Toyota's big recalls, coming years after the first spike in reports of unintended acceleration in 2004, reflected badly on both the company and NHTSA.

Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., criticized Toyota executives in Japan for not sharing safety information with their U.S. colleagues, such as parts defects found in other regions.

"Fundamental changes are needed at Toyota's leadership and fundamental reforms are also needed at NHTSA," said Waxman.

Questioning NHTSA's ability to carry out its functions, he said: "Carmakers have entered the electronic era, but NHTSA seems stuck in a mechanical mindset."

Lawmakers peppered Lentz and safety experts linked to plaintiffs' attorneys about the likelihood that Toyota's electronic throttle control might have a defect.

But Lentz held to Toyota's line that extensive testing had not uncovered any problem with the electronics.

"They got into a battle about the data," Samuel Bernstine, a Newcastle, Pa.-based partner with consulting firm Kepner-Tregoe Inc.

"The average consumer is still probably fairly confused."

Smith said she was convinced the problem was electronic, because of the way lights in her premium Lexus were flashing.

When she reported the problem, she encountered indifference from her dealer, from Toyota and then from NHTSA.

"Shame on you, Toyota, for being so greedy, and shame on you, NHTSA, for not doing your job," Smith said.

When lawmakers asked Lentz why the company hadn't taken her car to examine it closely, Lentz responded that the company would do that now.

Other automakers also have received complaints that vehicles accelerated uncontrollably, but in recent years the most complaints have been lodged about Toyota and Lexus vehicles, according to NHTSA.

"There're so many different causes," Lentz said, explaining how complicated the effort was to eliminate all possibilities. "They're very broad. They're very rare," he said, referring to the instances.

Charges, fines may follow

On the panel, Lentz and Toyota found some sympathy from lawmakers such as Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., with Toyota plants in their state.

Rep. Marcia Blackburn, R-Tenn., stressed that Toyota should be treated fairly by the subcommittee. "This is not a trial."

But Toyota may be exposed to criminal charges over the recalls. The automaker is the subject of a criminal investigation by a federal grand jury in New York as well as a civil probe by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Some legal experts have said the multiple investigations and the risk of criminal charges could restrain Toyota executives at the congressional hearings.

LaHood, the last witness to come before the subcommittee, pushed back suggestions that NHTSA was cozy with the automakers it was regulating.

"Every step of the way, NHTSA has pushed Toyota" to take necessary actions.

NHTSA is considering fining Toyota up to $16.4 million over the timeliness of the recalls and whether it took all the appropriate actions.

But LaHood also applauded the automaker for cooperating and avoiding the time and expense of forcing compliance, which he said "would have delayed the fixes for a year or more."

LaHood assured the committee all causes of unintended acceleration will continue to be investigated and if NHTSA finds a problem, will make sure that it is remedied.

LaHood said "NHTSA gets 30,000 complaints a year and reviews every one of them."

But he accepted Waxman's assertion that reforms were needed at NHTSA and said he may come back to Congress for "legislative remedies."

From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20100224/AUTO01/2240377/1148/auto01/Sudden-acceleration-fix-still-an-issue--Toyota-says#ixzz0gSYGOrJa

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The hearing with Lentz wasn't anything overly revealing... more like a waste of time. This wasn't the fault of Lentz, as he had no answers to many questions that made the committee wonder why he felt he was the one to attend this hearing. His response? "The committee invited me." After that, I heard a lot more talking on the part of the committee than I did questions. There could have been far better preparation to that whole ordeal to get started with the discovery of the issue so the average viewer could begin to understand the problem outside of the coffee-shop hearsay. At least, that's what I expected to see. I gave up after listening to one of the committee members ramble on about specific accidents and details Lentz certainly would have zero knowledge of.

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