Toyota chiefs blame fast rise, admit recall limits

WASHINGTON: Toyota's top US executive has admitted that global vehicle recalls had "not totally" fixed dangerous safety flaws, as angry US lawmakers looked to grill the Japanese auto giant's contrite president, Akio Toyoda.

Toyoda, in testimony he was to deliver Wednesday to the House Oversight and Government Reformm Committee, apologized personally for the defects but blamed the company's "too quick" rise to world number one for slipping standards.

"I regret that this has resulted in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today, and I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced," said Toyoda, whose remarks were made public.

Toyoda, grandson of the company's founder, was expected to face tough questions by the committee, the second of three panels looking into the response to sudden unintended acceleration blamed for some 30 US deaths.

James Lentz, who heads Toyota Motor Sales USA, drew sharp skepticism Tuesday when he told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that electronic malfunctions were not responsible for the potentially deadly spikes in speed. Text of Toyota chief's prepared testimony to US Congress

But he acknowledged that recalls for sticky pedals and others that can be blocked by floormats would "not totally" solve the sudden unintended acceleration problem and said Toyota had not wholly dismissed electronic flaws.

"We continue to be vigilant and continue to investigate all of the complaints that we get from consumers," Lentz told wary lawmakers.

Toyota's vows of stepped up quality control and better recalls did nothing to soothe the anger of Rhonda Smith, who held the panel spellbound with a harrowing tale of how her luxury car became an uncontrollable missile.

The Tennessee woman's voice broke as she recalled placing what she thought would be her last telephone call to her husband Eddie as her Lexus ripped forward on a highway at over 100 miles (160 kilometers) per hour.

"I knew he could not help me, but I wanted to hear his voice one more time," said Smith, who accused Toyota and the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of ignoring her subsequent pleas to fix the problem. Smith's emotional testimony

"Shame on you, Toyota, for being so greedy. And shame on you, NHTSA, for not doing your job," she said.

Toyoda, due to speak to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday, ruefully acknowledged in prepared testimony that: "Quite frankly, I fear the pace at which we have grown may have been too quick." Related article: Toyota recalls test family scion's mettle

In another blow to the company, an automotive technology professor, David Gilbert, told the panel that he had found a possible electronic culprit in just three and a half hours for next to no money.

Lentz cast doubt on those findings, accusing the professor of not doing his research in "real-world" conditions and saying "it just seems a little good to be true" that he would succeed where Toyota's experts had failed.

"Maybe they didn't ask the right questions," said Gilbert.

Toyota has pulled more than eight million vehicles off the roads over accelerator, brake and steering problems and faces class-action lawsuits potentially costing billions of dollars. Timeline: Toyota's global recall crisis

A qualified test driver, Toyoda talked of his personal pain at the problems confronting the Japanese giant, founded by his grandfather and now embroiled in the worst crisis of its 70-year history. Facts and figures on the Toyota recall

"For me when the cars are damaged, it is as though I am as well. I, more than anyone, wish for Toyota's cars to be safe and for our customers to feel safe when they use our vehicles," his testimony said.

Toyoda said a new quality advisory group of experts including from the United States would be set up to avoid future mistakes.

US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told lawmakers Tuesday that he had found Toyota's Japan-based leaders "safety-deaf" when he took office last year but that he believed the company was charting a different course.

Still, he said, "we are going to do a complete review of the electronics."

And key committee member, Democratic Representative Bart Stupak, accused Toyota of relying on a "flawed" study to dismiss the electronic problem and misleading the public about the causes.

Toyota, which last year dethroned General Motors as the world's top automaker, is fighting to maintain its once stellar reputation for quality, safety and reliability.

This week's hearings come as the auto giant answers a request for documents from US federal grand jury investigating whether there is sufficient evidence for criminal charges related to the defects.

Asked about the possibility of more damaging disclosures, Lentz replied: "God, I hope there aren't any more. I've had enough bombshells for one year."