Lentz Tells Capitol Hill Toyota 'Lost Sight of the Customer'

Automaker's USA President Apologizes but Denies Electronics Problems Amid Lawmaker Skepticism

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ARLINGTON, Va. (AdAge.com) -- In an emotional hearing in Washington today, Toyota Motor Sales USA President-Chief Operating Officer Jim Lentz apologized for unintended acceleration in the company's vehicles, saying, "I think we lost sight of the customer."

Jim Lentz testifies before the the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee.
Jim Lentz testifies before the the Oversight and Investigations subcommittee. Credit: AP
But beleaguered Toyota continued to deny that there may be problems with its electronic throttle-control system amid criticism from lawmakers that the company is not responding adequately to the problem. "We are confident that, from what we know today, it is not an electronics issue," Mr. Lentz said in his testimony to a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He maintained that the problem is caused by floor mats that become entangled with gas pedals, or gas pedals sticking.

The committee's Oversight and Investigations subcommittee held a hearing today and has another scheduled tomorrow on Toyota's response to reports of unintended acceleration in its vehicles, which has led to the recall of 8 million of Toyota vehicles worldwide.

The subcommittee heard testimony from Rhonda Smith, a retired social worker from Sevierville, Tenn., about how her Lexus ES 350, with less than 3,000 miles on it, accelerated to 100 miles per hour in 2006 as she attempted to stop it for six harrowing miles on a highway. Ten days after the car was towed to the Toyota dealer, the company wrote her a five-sentence letter stating, "When properly maintained, brakes will override the accelerator."

"Shame on you, Toyota, for being so greedy," Ms. Smith said.

'SWAT' teams
The Smith case received little attention until a California highway patrolman and his family were killed in 2009 after their Toyota also allegedly accelerated uncontrollably. Since 2000, 34 U.S. deaths have been reported in Toyotas that were allegedly caused by the same problem.

Mr. Lentz apologized for Toyota in his testimony, and he said under questioning that he was "embarrassed" for what happened to Ms. Smith.

Like Mrs. Smith, Mr. Lentz choked up in testifying, recalling the loss of his brother in an automobile accident some 20 years ago. "There's not a day that goes by when I don't think of that," he said.

Under questioning by Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, Mr. Lentz said Toyota is changing its procedures so that representatives of the North American branch will have more say into whether U.S. vehicles should be recalled. In the future, "SWAT" teams are to be deployed to examine any cars that are reported with the problem, he said.

But Mr. Barton was critical of the way Toyota has handled the problems with unintended acceleration. "You're not solving the problem that Mrs. Smith had," Mr. Barton said to Mr. Lentz. "You can solve it if your legal department will let you solve it."

Looking at electronics
More than 100,000 pages of documents from Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reveal thousands of complaints about runaway Toyota vehicles, and the number of those types of complaints increased after the introduction of electronic throttle controls, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, R-Calif., said.

Yet, "there is no evidence that Toyota or NHTSA took a serious look at the possibility that electronic defects could be causing the problem," Mr. Waxman said. Despite as many as 2,600 complaints of runaway vehicles received through its telephone hotline, Toyota did not initiate a study into possible electronic defects until two months ago, and the study commissioned by the company is seriously flawed, he said.

David Gilbert, associate professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University, testified that he found in his own research that the Toyota electronic systems have a malfunction that prevents them from entering into a "fail-safe" mode to shut down in cases of unintended acceleration. The problem was surprisingly easy to find, Mr. Gilbert said. "You can imagine my surprise when I found it was as easy as it was" to detect, he said.

Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Col., said that last night Toyota's research company, Exponent, had been able to replicate findings similar to those Mr. Gilbert found with the electronic system malfunction. But Mr. Lentz indicated it was not clear whether Exponent's findings were the result of manipulating the car's systems. "I'm not sure about his testing paradigm," he said of Mr. Gilbert's research.

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