U.S. president said Tuesday that the automaker's rapid growth caused it to lose touch with consumers.
"I think we lost sight of the customer --I don't think it was a goal for us to grow faster, but we did," Jim Lentz told the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, which is investigating responses to sudden unintended acceleration by Toyota and the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
"We had a lot of customers that loved our product," Lentz said. "Our volume grew. The complexity of our product line grew. And I think we outgrew our engineering resource. We had strategies to deal with that. But the strategies didn't work. We're suffering form that today."
Lentz said Toyota has taken a series of steps to enhance its ability to respond to sudden surges and other problems. Starting with 2011 models, brakes will be able to override acceleration in Toyota vehicles. Also, software changes will enable brake overrides in more than half of the Toyotas currently on the road.
An organizational change means that while decisions on defects will continue to be made in Japan, executives from the U.S. and other regions will be on the defect committee and will be involved in such decisions -- and will have the right to appeal.
Meanwhile, Toyota, which currently has one engineering center in the U.S., will establish more, so that its engineers can get to any accident within 24 hours to examine the vehicle involved. "We weren't doing a good job in the past of investigating," Lentz said.
Lentz also sought to respond to compelling testimony by a Tennessee woman who called her husband as her Lexus sped uncontrollably down the highway. "I knew he could not help me but I wanted to hear his voice once more time," said Rhonda Smith.
She said she tried putting the Lexus ES250 in neutral and in reverse, but neither caused it to slow down. However, "after six miles, God intervened" and the car came to a stop, she said.
Rhonda Smith of Sevierville, Tenn., testifies Tuesday at the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee hearing about her Lexus' apparent sudden acceleration in 2006.
Toyota's response to the October 2006 incident was inadequate, Smith said. After the dealership looked over her car, it determined that "when properly maintained, the brakes will always override the accelerator." When the incident occurred, her car had fewer than 3,000 miles on it. Later, the NHTSA reviewed her complaint. But "neither Toyota nor NHTSA took us seriously," she said.
"Shame on you Toyota for being so greedy," she added. "Shame on you NHTSA for not doing your job."
Later, Lentz said: "Listening to Mrs. Smith, I'm embarrassed for what happened." He said Toyota now intends to thoroughly check out the Smiths' vehicle. "You didn't have to have a death to understand the terror she had from that accident," he said.
Two experts told the committee that an electronic failure likely explains the incident of sudden unintended acceleration that Smith described. Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies, said he reviewed 2,260 complaints to Toyota regarding sudden unintended acceleration and found that about half would not be covered by the Toyota recalls.
Toyota has so far dismissed electronic failures as a cause of sudden unintended acceleration. Its recalls are intended to address two issues: floor mats that are loose or improperly fitted, which could therefore influence the accelerator, and accelerators that can become sticky with wear. Toyota has recalled about 6 million vehicles in the U.S.
David Gilbert, associate professor of automotive technology at Southern Illinois University, said he was able to induce electronic failures after three-and-a-half hours of testing. He said that the fail-safe mechanism in the electronic system, which would halt acceleration, "will only come into play if the onboard computer is able to detect a fault in the circuit, (but) there is a large amount of leniency in the programming for fail-safe strategies that will allow certain abnormalities to occur" without recognition of an error.
Lentz said late Monday that Toyota engineers were able to duplicate the failure that Gilbert induced. But he said it was "not a real world scenario" because Gilbert disconnected wires that would not normally become disconnected. However, Lentz said, Toyota and its consultants intend to continue to test for electronic failures.
-- Written by Ted Reed in Charlotte, N.C.