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House Questions Toyota Execs Over Recalls

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

And we begin this hour with an apology. It came today from the world's largest automaker. During a congressional hearing, the president of Toyota USA apologized for mistakes made in response to complaints of sudden acceleration in its cars and trucks. Today was the first of three hearings into those mistakes and the role of federal regulators in overseeing the company.

But as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, many committee members were skeptical of the company's explanations so far.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Before a pact hearing of the House Energy and Commerce investigation subcommittee, James Lentz, president of Toyota USA conceded his company has made mistakes handling sudden acceleration complaints. Lentz said the company has now identified two fixes for the acceleration problem. But Lentz insisted it was not a problem of the car's electronic controls.

Mr. JAMES LENTZ (President, Toyota USA): We are confident that no problems exist in our electronic throttle systems in our vehicles. We have done extensive testing of this system and we've never found a malfunction that's caused unintended acceleration.

NAYLOR: The unintended acceleration problems have forced Toyota to recall more than eight and a half million vehicles worldwide. Lentz said there were two specific mechanical causes of unintended acceleration: sticky gas pedals and floor mats that can jam those pedals. But under questioning from California Democrat Henry Waxman, Lentz admitted there could be other issues.

Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): Do you believe that the recall on the carpet changes and the recall on the sticky pedal will solve the problem of sudden unintended acceleration?

Mr. LENTZ: Not totally.

Rep. WAXMAN: Okay, what do you need to do?

Mr. LENTZ: We need to continue to be vigilant and continue to investigate all of the complaints that we get from consumers that we have done a relatively poor job of doing in the past.

NAYLOR: Also testifying was David Gilbert, a professor of auto technology at Southern Illinois University. He told the committee he was able to create a problem with the electronic throttle control of a Toyota truck that was not detected by the vehicle's onboard computer. He said that suggested Toyota's electronic controls could be the cause of the sudden acceleration complaints.

Professor DAVID GILBERT (Auto Technology, Southern Illinois University): And so, I wanted to make sure that what I had found was repeatable. So, I tried it on another vehicle and had very similar results. And at that point I had become very alarmed.

NAYLOR: But Lentz said an independent firm hired by Toyota was unable to create a similar scenario. Perhaps the hearing's most moving testimony came from Rhonda Smith, a Tennessee woman. She told the panel her Lexus ES 350 suddenly sped up to 100 miles an hour on an interstate despite her attempts to stop it.

Ms. RHONDA SMITH: I placed both feet on the brake after I firmly engaged the emergency brake and nothing slows the car. I figured the car was going to go its maximum speed and I was going to have to put the car into the upcoming guardrail in order to prevent killing anyone else. And I prayed for God to help me. I called my husband on the Bluetooth phone system, I knew...

(Soundbite of crying)

Ms. SMITH: I knew he could not help me but I wanted to hear his voice one more time.

NAYLOR: The car eventually slowed and she was able to stop it. Her husband then testified that he put the car into neutral to have it towed and the car tried to start by itself. But a Tennessee Lexus dealer could find nothing wrong with the vehicle. Another congressional panel will look into Toyota's acceleration problems tomorrow. It will hear from the company's president, Akio Toyoda. According to his prepared testimony, Toyoda will say he's taking full responsibility for the acceleration problems. Referring to a California family killed in the sudden acceleration crash, Toyoda will pledge to do everything in his power to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.