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Highlights from House hearings on Toyota

Two House panels examined in hearings this week whether Toyota and U.S. authorities acted in a timely fashion to address complaints of unintended acceleration. Read highlights and watch videos.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Two House panels examined in hearings this week whether Toyota Motor Corp. and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration acted in a timely fashion to address complaints of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles. Read below for highlights and watch videos from the hearing.

Toyota ‘all but ignored pleas’
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said in an opening statement Tuesday that Toyota "misled" the public by saying it had thoroughly analyzed its vehicles’ electronic systems that some say have led to instances of unintended acceleration and that the Japanese automaker’s actions have provided little assurance to drivers.

"Toyota all but ignored pleas from consumers to examine sudden, unintended acceleration events," he said. "They boast in a briefing of saving Toyota a $100 million by negotiating a limited recall."

Stupak also said an analysis of documents from Toyota showed that around 70 percent of reported problems with sudden acceleration are from vehicles not covered in the company's two recalls, totaling 8.5 million vehicles worldwide, because of sticky pedals and floor mats.

"Toyota owes it to its customers, the American people, and government regulators to complete a comprehensive and scientifically sound review of their electronic system," he said.

‘I prayed for God’
Rhonda Smith, a retired social worker from Tennessee, testified as the first witness about how she "lost control" of the acceleration in her vehicle.

"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," she said. "And I prayed for God to help me."

She said that from the car she called her husband, Eddie Smith, who later testified. "I knew he could not help me, but I wanted to hear his voice one more time," she said, adding that after six miles "God intervened" and the car slowed to a stop.

Eddie Smith, who called the event the "most frightening and heart wrenching" incident he's experienced, testified that Toyota basically called them "liars" when they informed the automaker of the issue.

He also said that NHTSA's claim the problem originated in floor mats was "absurd."

Inducing electronic errors?
Sean Kane, founder of research firm Safety Research & Strategies Inc., and David Gilbert, an associate professor of Automotive Technology at Southern Illinois University, submitted a report they said showed some Toyota vehicles' electronic systems could fail under certain circumstances.

Gilbert said he was even able in testing to induce electronic problems involving the fail-safe mode that could "potentially result in a runaway engine."

Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., called the report offered by the two witnesses biased. He asserted that attorneys representing people with claims against Toyota "sponsored" Kane, who paid Gilbert to do his research.

‘Confident’ in electronic system
Jim Lentz, president and COO of Toyota Motor Sales USA, acknowledged changes the company is making aren't the end of the story.

"We are vigilant, and we continue to look for potential causes," Lentz said. In other testimony, he admitted Toyota made mistakes and that the company was "committed" to fixing vehicles and making new models better.

Lentz also defended the electronic systems criticized earlier in the hearing.

"We are confident that no problems exist in our electronic throttle systems in our vehicles," he said. "We've done extensive testing of this system and we've never found a malfunction that's caused unintended acceleration."

He also announced that the company will install a brake override system in new models as standard equipment.

Answering a question from John Dingell, D-Mich., Lentz said that executives in Japan made all decisions about recalls and that he was only responsible for sales, not manufacturing or quality decisions.

LaHood promises a ‘complete review’
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told lawmakers the U.S. will do a "complete review of the electronics" in Toyotas and reiterated his call for owners of recalled vehicles to get them fixed as soon as possible.

Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Oversight Committee, told LaHood that  NHTSA, which is part of the Transportation Department, "failed the taxpayers." He also asked if the recalled vehicles were drivable.

LaHood said the cars listed on the Transportation Department's Web site were "not safe."

"I want anybody who has one of those cars to take it to the dealer and make sure it gets fixed," he said.

GOP lawmakers also questioned LaHood why David Strickland, the head of the NHTSA, was dropped from the witness list.

"I am not going to have our NHTSA administrator, who has been on the job 40 days, appear. I am taking responsibility for this," LaHood said.

Toyoda takes the stand
As Toyota Motors Corp. president Akio Toyoda arrived on Capitol Hill, he vowed to cooperate fully with a U.S. government investigation into the causes of the massive recalls and the source of the braking and acceleration problems that have tarnished his company’s image.

"Safety is our top priority, and I intend to cooperate fully with the U.S. government," he told reporters in Japanese before the hearing.

At the hearing, he apologized to Congress and the American people.

"I'm deeply sorry for any accident that Toyota drivers have experienced," said the grandson of the founder of the world's largest automaker.

After an exchange of pleasantries that included praise from committee members for his willingness to step into a lion's den, Toyoda and a top deputy drew heavy fire from both Democrats and Republicans.

Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., cited "injuries and the damages suffered by innocent Americans ... who like myself have grown up in an atmosphere that we had a great deal of faith in something that was stamped 'Made in Japan.'"

"It was of the highest reliability. You injured that thought process in the American public and you will be called upon in our system to pay compensation for that," Kanjorski said.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said it was a "very embarrassing day" for Toyota and for U.S. highway safety regulators. He said he was equally embarrassed for U.S. Toyota dealers and for the thousands of hardworking Americans in "Toyota plants across the country."

The Associated Press and NBC News contributed to this report.