WASHINGTON — The president of Toyota's U.S. operations acknowledged to skeptical lawmakers on Tuesday that the company's recalls of millions of its cars may "not totally" solve the problem of sudden and dangerous acceleration.
"We are vigilant and we continue to look for potential causes," Toyota's James Lentz told a congressional panel.
However, he repeated his company's position that unexpected acceleration in some of the company's most popular cars and trucks was caused by one of two problems — misplaced floor mats and sticking accelerator pedals.
He insisted electronic systems connected to the gas pedal and fuel line did not contribute to the problem, drawing sharp criticism from lawmakers who said such a possibility should be further explored — and from a tearful woman who could not stop her runaway Lexus.
"Shame on you, Toyota," Rhonda Smith of Sevierville, Tenn., said. Then she added a second "shame on you" directed at federal highway safety regulators.
Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton cautioned his colleagues early in the hearing against conducting a "witch hunt" and said, "We don't want to just assume automatically that Toyota has done something wrong and has tried to cover it up."
But midway through Lentz's testimony, Barton said of Toyota's investigation of the problems: "In my opinion, it's a sham."
Lentz said the company had not completely ruled out an electronics malfunction. Still, "we have not found a malfunction" in the electronics of any of the cars at issue, he said.
As to Smith's harrowing story, "I'm embarrassed for what happened," Lentz said.
At one point in more than two hours of testimony, Lentz was asked by Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., whether there were any new bombshells to come.
"God, I hope there aren't any more," he said, while apologizing anew.
Three congressional panels are investigating Toyota's problems.
Toyota has recalled some 8.5 million vehicles worldwide — more than 6 million in the United States — since last fall because of unintended acceleration problems in multiple models and braking issues in the Prius. It is also investigating steering concerns in Corollas. The government has received complaints of 34 deaths linked to sudden acceleration of Toyota vehicles since 2000.
Lentz has said in the past that he was confident Toyota's fixes on the recalled vehicles would correct the problems.
But when pressed by Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., on whether the two recalls Toyota put in place to deal with the issue would completely solve it, Lentz replied: "Not totally."
Still, he said chances of unintended accelerations were "very, very slim" once the recall was complete. Lentz also said Toyota was putting in new brakes that can override the gas pedal on almost all of its new vehicles and a majority of its vehicles already on the road.
Meanwhile, Toyota president Akio Toyoda, who will testify before a separate panel today, said he took "full responsibility" for the uncertainty felt by Toyota owners.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the panel that possible electronics problems were being looked into by his agency.