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Toyota’s Troubles Accelerate with Congressional, Criminal Probes

February 23, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Toyota executive James Lentz apologized to a House subcommittee Tuesday over the motor company's slow response to safety concerns. Jim Lehrer talks with Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, and Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., about the first of three congressional probes on Toyota's recall issues.
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JIM LEHRER: Congress got its first crack at Toyota today over problems with uncontrolled acceleration.

“NewsHour” congressional correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: After weeks of news conferences and new disclosures, Toyota’s North American boss, James Lentz, took the oath at a House hearing. He said his company had been too slow to respond to safety concerns, and he apologized.

JAMES LENTZ, president and CEO, Toyota Motor Sales USA: In recent months, we have not lived up to our 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.

KWAME HOLMAN: The acceleration problem has led to a global recall of some eight million Toyota vehicles, including six million in the U.S. But Lentz insisted today that faulty floor mats and sticky pedals were the culprits, and not the car’s electronics.

JAMES LENTZ: We have designed our electronic throttle system with multiple fail-safe mechanisms to shut off or reduce engine power in the event of a system failure. We have done extensive testing on this system and we have never found a malfunction that has caused unintended acceleration.

KWAME HOLMAN: Lawmakers made their skepticism clear. Bart Stupak of Michigan, head of the subcommittee that held today’s hearing, spelled out his view even before Lentz spoke.

REP. BART STUPAK, D-Mich.: They misled the American public by saying that they and other independent sources had thoroughly analyzed the electronics system and eliminated electronics as a possible cause of sudden, unintended acceleration, when, in fact, the only such review was a flawed study conducted by a company retained by Toyota’s lawyers.

KWAME HOLMAN: Later, Lentz acknowledged Toyota has not entirely ruled out an electronics malfunction. He was questioned by California Democrat Henry Waxman, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN, D-Calif.: It appears that you’re trying to give assurances to people, convince that both of Toyota’s recent recalls will address the problem. But our committee’s investigation calls into accuracy your statement because 70 percent of the complaints of sudden, unintended acceleration that come into Toyota’s customer call line were from vehicles, drivers of vehicles who were not included in either of the recalls.

Do you believe that the recall on the — on the carpet changes and the recall on the sticky pedal will solve the problem of sudden, unintended acceleration?

JAMES LENTZ: Not totally.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: OK, what do you need to do?

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.

KWAME HOLMAN: Waxman also criticized the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA, the primary agency responsible for auto safety.

He said NHTSA accepted Toyota’s explanations without doing any meaningful investigation. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood defended NHTSA and said the agency will ferret out the truth.

RAY LAHOOD, U.S. secretary of transportation: NHTSA will continue to make sure Toyota is doing all that it has promised to make its vehicles safe. 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.

KWAME HOLMAN: In all, the government has received 34 reports of deaths linked to Toyota’s acceleration problems since 2000. A Tennessee woman, Rhonda Smith, said she very nearly lost her life in 2006, when her Toyota Lexus sped out of control on an interstate highway.

RHONDA SMITH, testified about Lexus sudden acceleration: I put the car into all available gears, including neutral. But then I put it in reverse, and it remains in reverse as the car speeds to over 100 miles per hour down the interstate. After six miles, God intervened, as the car came very slowly to a stop.

KWAME HOLMAN: And, later, the top Republican at the hearing, Joe Barton of Texas, said Lentz should personally investigate Smith’s accident.

REP. JOE BARTON, R-Texas.: If I’m CEO and I have the authority, I — as soon as I walk out of this hearing, I pick up the phone and I say, get that car, if I have to pay $100,000. Get that car. Put the best engineers on it. Let’s tear the damn thing apart. And let’s find out what’s happening to it, because you can do all this other stuff, but if you don’t go where the problem is, you know, you’re probably never going to figure out what’s going on.

JAMES LENTZ: And I — and I can tell you listening to Mrs. Smith, I’m embarrassed for what happened. And we are going to go down and — and talk to them and get that car, so that they feel satisfied. I want her and her husband to feel safe about driving our products. I was embarrassed to hear the story.

REP. JOE BARTON: I want the truth, and I wanted whether my constituency wants to buy a GM product or Toyota product or any other product in the automotive sector to feel that those products are safe, period. And I have confidence in your engineering department. You can solve it, if your legal department will let you solve it.

KWAME HOLMAN: Before today’s hearing began, 150 Toyota dealers took to the halls of Congress to tell their part of the story. They defended the Toyota brand, and complained the automaker has been singled out unfairly.

TAMMY DARVISH, president, DARCARS Automotive Group: You would think, from some of the reports that you read, that recall is something brand-new in industry. And it’s not. For Toyota, of course, it is. It’s the first mandatory — or involuntary recall they have had in 52 years. But just to put it in perspective, in the last 12 calendar months, in the last 12 calendar months, the Detroit three combined had 37 involuntary recalls and 104 voluntary recalls.

KWAME HOLMAN: Tomorrow, Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda will testify before a separate House committee.

JIM LEHRER: For the record, Toyota is an underwriter of the “NewsHour.”

Now we have some reaction to today’s House hearing.

It comes from two members of Congress who were there today, Republican Phil Gingrey of Georgia and Democrat Bruce Braley of Iowa.

First, Congressman Braley, what was the main message you took away from what you heard from Mr. Lentz today in this hearing?

REP. BRUCE BRALEY, D-Iowa: Well, Jim, I think the main message that most of us took away is that, if you’re going to deal with the problem, you first have to admit you have a problem.

Toyota’s focus throughout this recall has been on the mechanical solution involving floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals. But the testimony we heard from the Smith family from Tennessee and from a host of other people who had problems with sudden, unanticipated acceleration in their Toyota vehicles led many people, including ranking member Joe Barton, to question whether Toyota was devoting the necessary time and resources to analyzing and ruling out a potential electronical problem.

JIM LEHRER: Do you, Congressman Gingrey, that admitting what the problem was, was the major problem today for Toyota?

REP. PHIL GINGREY, R-Ga.: Well, Jim, I think that their admitting it was a — a major goal and accomplishment of Toyota. I thought they were very forthright.

And I agree with my good friend Representative Braley in regard to that. Of course, as far as the 30-something reported deaths from a rapid, unexpected acceleration, these were from — from car mats, floor mats. And none of this was from the electronic acceleration system.

But, absolutely, and my ranking member, Joe Barton, the chairman of the committee, Bart Stupak, I think we all agree that safety is first and foremost the most important thing. And I think we will get to the bottom of it.

We had 70,000 pages of testimony, and I wish we had had a little bit more time to review those and maybe have a few additional witnesses. But, for the most part, I think Toyota was very forthright. Of course, Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation, felt that NHTSA had done the right thing in regard to asking Toyota to do a voluntary recall, that it was quicker than mandatory.

So, we had a long five-hour hearing. And I thought a lot was accomplished today.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Congressman Braley, that a lot was accomplished?

REP. BRUCE BRALEY: Oh, I think it was a very productive and informative day. And a lot of us had an opportunity to raise some concerns and hear from the people involved in responding to this problem.

But I think one of the things we learned, Jim, is that the automotive industry has changed greatly from when my colleague, Dr. Gingrey, and I were growing up, and you could put together a car engine in your basement.

These engines now are highly technical. They are built with sophisticated electrical and computer components. And because of that, I’m concerned that the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is lacking in the resources and the trained personnel to deal with some of the problems we’re trying to analyze.

And I think that’s something that is not a partisan issue. I think it’s something that, to protect the American consumers, we have to continue to work together to make sure that our regulators have the tools they need to perform their job.

JIM LEHRER: Do you share that concern, Congressman Gingrey, that NHTSA, the federal government isn’t up to snuff on all this stuff yet?

REP. PHIL GINGREY: Well, Jim, I don’t know whether they are or not, quite honestly. That’s what the hearing is all about.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

REP. PHIL GINGREY: But, absolutely, Toyota certainly is not the only automobile manufacturer that has this electronic throttle system. Virtually all domestic and foreign makers have that same system.

So, if there’s a problem with the software or the hardware within those systems, we darn sure need to find out about that. And that’s what Mr. Lentz said that he was willing to do today, to go get that car, to break it down, to tear it apart, to look at it very closely, because it could affect many other companies, not just Toyota, who has built 16 million cars in this country and provided a lot of jobs, good-paying jobs, and livelihood for American citizens.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Congressman Braley that the federal government has a major responsibility to do this as well, not just the individual companies?

REP. PHIL GINGREY: Well, absolutely. And, as you point out, NHTSA, according to Secretary LaHood, he felt like that they did the right thing, and they were on-spot in regard to getting the recall.

But, again, as my good friend from Iowa said, if we in these hearings determine that NHTSA needs more resources, more funding, more expertise, more engineers, then that’s what will come out of this hearing.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Braley, do you have the feeling that Toyota is just one of many companies, at least potential problems within the automobile industry, that it isn’t just about Toyota; it has to do with all kinds of things because of the — of the new electronic implements that are now put inside a hood?

REP. BRUCE BRALEY: Absolutely, Jim. I made the statement at the beginning of the hearing that I’m an equal-opportunity consumer protection advocate.

We have to make sure that every car, whether it was manufactured in the United States or overseas, if it’s being sold in this country, it needs to be subjected to rigorous testing before it’s introduced into the marketplace, so that we can assure Americans, consumers, they’re riding in safe vehicles.

This is not “let’s gang up on Toyota” day. This is just addressing a significant concern that’s arisen in recent — recent months because of specific incidents where their vehicles have created a problem that we’re trying to get to the bottom of.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Gingrey, on Toyota specifically, a lot of people had suggested going into these hearings, at least, that Toyota doesn’t really get it, that they did — had trouble understanding what the problem was and they were slow to react. Do you think they get it now?

REP. PHIL GINGREY: Jim, I think they definitely get it now.

James Lentz said that very definitively today. He — in fact, he admitted — he apologized to the consumer, to the American public in regard to a lack of a speedy response. I think they realize that there is that potential that this it’s in this electronic emission system that there could be a problem.

Now, there have been, thank God, no — no fatalities, no major accidents in regard to that. But that story that was told today by the Smith family from Tennessee, it was a pretty harrowing experience they went through. And she was praying, and thank God answered her prayers.

But we need to go back to the drawing board. I think Toyota is ready, willing and able to do that. It’s a great company. It has a great safety record, less recalls than any foreign or domestic automobile manufacturer in the world. So, I have confidence that — that they get it and they will do the right thing.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Congressman Braley, Toyota gets it now?

REP. BRUCE BRALEY: Well, the only I would disagree with my friend from Georgia is that there are still unresolved issues on very tragic cases, and one involving a California Highway Patrol Officer who was driving a car with a sudden, unanticipated acceleration, and four people killed — were killed in that accident.

And that’s an example of somewhere there hasn’t been a definitive answer as to whether a sudden electronical malfunction was a contributing factor.

But, look, the most compelling — one of the most compelling moments in this hearing today was when the CEO of Toyota North America got very choked up describing the fact that he lost a brother in a fatal car accident. And I thanked him for having the courage to share that and encouraged him to share it with the people in Japan that he indicated in his testimony were responsible for making recall decisions, safety decisions, retrofit decisions, and responding to the analysis of what’s causing these problems.

And he assured me that he would. So, I’m hopeful that he’s going to pass along that message, and we’re going to see a very different response from Toyota.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Congressman Gingrey, did you share Congressman Barton’s frustration that Toyota didn’t grab that car, the one in California, as well as the one in Tennessee, and find out what in the world happened to this?

REP. PHIL GINGREY: Well, my understanding, Jim, in regards to the automobile in California that Bruce Braley just referred to and when there were four fatalities in that one car, that they did get that car, and, in fact, the accelerator was actually welded literally to the floor mat.

So, this was a case of the accelerator sticking to the floor mat. So, that was a floor mat problem. That clearly was not the electronic emission system. In regard to what Joe Barton said about, even if he had to pay $100,000 to go get that car, yes, I agree with him completely.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

And you — you do, too, Congressman Braley, right?

REP. BRUCE BRALEY: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Gentlemen, thank you both very much.

REP. PHIL GINGREY: Thank you, Jim.

REP. BRUCE BRALEY: Thank you, Jim.