Nightly News   |  February 23, 2010

Tears flow, accusations fly as Toyota gets grilled

A senior Toyota executive apologized before Congress Tuesday, saying the world's largest car company failed to realize they had a dangerous problem and admitted the recall repairs might not fix all of them. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell reports.

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>>> events. "nightly news" begins now.

>>> good evening. we begin from vancouver tonight with a steam-rolling consumer story in the u.s. and around the world. toyota , the big automaker is in big trouble over safety, over secrets, here what they knew and when they knew it, and what to tell all the toyota owners about gas pedals and electronics and repairs. today, congress had questions for toyota . tomorrow they get to throw those questions at the man with the family name, the grandson of the founder. we begin our reporting tonight with nbc's kelly o'donnell in washington. she was there for it all today. kelly , good evening.

>> reporter: good evening, brian. today a senior executive from toyota came here to apologize, saying the world's largest car company failed to recognize they really had a dangerous problem with some cars suddenly accelerating, admitting the recall repairs might not fix all the problems. this was quite a hearing. there were tears, angry accusations and members of congress saying they're toyota owners, too. day one of the toyota hearings. the first witness, a customer with a frightening story to tell.

>> at this time i lost all control of acceleration of the vehicle.

>> reporter: retired social worker rhonda smith testified in 2006 her lexus wildly accelerated to 100 miles per hour, both feet on the brake, terrified. she called her husband.

>> i knew he could not help me, but i wanted to hear his voice one more time. after six miles, god intervened.

>> reporter: smith and husband eddie say they desperately tried to get toyota 's attention, but were ignored.

>> we were called liars and accused of ruining our own brakes and transmission.

>> reporter: toyota 's top u.s. executive.

>> i was embarrassed to hear the story.

>> reporter: toyota repeatedly insisted the cause of unintended acceleration is not the car's electronic system and faulted sticky gas pedals or jammed floor mats. an automotive professor claimed his own experience found an electronic gingrich where his own toyota failed to recognize sudden acceleration.

>> how long did it take to you discover this problem? did you spend millions of dollars?

>> i discovered it in about 3 1/2 hours.

>> reporter: with more than 8 million cars recalled and thousands of customer complaints filed, toyota admitted mistakes.

>> it's taken us too long to come to grips with a rare, but serious set of safety issues. despite all our good-faith efforts.

>> reporter: recall repairs have been made on about 1 million cars, but today toyota admitted those fixes may not be enough to solve all the problems.

>> do you believe that the recall on the carpet changes and the recall on the sticky pedal will solve the problem of sudden, inen tended acceleration?

>> not totally.

>> reporter: there were many tense exchanges.

>> please tell me the date toyota first heard of incidents of sudden acceleration in its vehicles sold in the u.s.

>> i don't know the answer to that.

>> please submit that to the record.

>> reporter: toyota promised to do better and told congress they will retrofit some models with a software called a brake override to prevent sudden acceleration. new cars will have it, but toyota says it won't work for some recalled models.

>> what do you say to these owners who will not have the safety feature? they'll continue to drive down the road hoping they don't have a sudden, unintended acceleration?

>> again, the incident, the possibility of that happening very, very slim.

>> reporter: a couple of points. congress put some of the blame on federal regulators saying they might be too cozy with the industry and slow to act. there was also an important concession that was alies ted of the questioning today. while toyota says it does not believe electronics are to blame, it will be open to that as a possibility. that's an important distinction. brian?

>> all right, kelly o'donnell after covering the hearing for us today. kelly , thanks. as kelly