Watching Toyota Motor (TM) executives get grilled by members of the House of Representatives during twin hearings this week in Washington about the safety of Toyota vehicles was a spectacle replete with memorable moments -- including some that were just plain cringe-worthy.
President Akio Toyoda's plodding answers, spoken in Japanese and then interpreted in English, come to mind, as does Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. President James Lentz's (pictured) tearful moment when recalling the death of a brother from a car accident 20 years ago. Toyoda's lack of command of English is inexplicable, seeing as the U.S. is Toyota's largest market, while Lentz's tears, which appeared genuine, nonetheless left him looking more foolish than empathetic.
Lawmakers fared no better. One need look no further than Lentz's appearance before the Committee on Energy and Commerce on Tuesday. As head of sales in the U.S., Lentz has no role in engineering or safety, and couldn't answer many of the questions put to him about the problem of sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) in Toyota vehicles that has led to the recall of millions of cars. So why was he there? Because lawmakers invited Lentz, his own testimony revealed. That revelation left onlookers to wonder exasperatingly, what was the point?
Behind the scenes, one quickly got the sense the world was eager to see Toyota explain itself before the American people. Mixed in with the swollen numbers of press folk waiting to get inside the hearing rooms were considerable numbers of others who simply wanted to hear what Toyota knew and when it knew it.
There was also a sizable contingent of Toyota employees and dealers, who, in rotation, were whisked in and out of hearing rooms. The odd parade allowed each of them some time to both witness the goings-on and quietly show lawmakers the support Toyota has among those Americans who rely on the automaker for their livelihoods.
A Lot To Answer For
To be sure, Toyota had a lot to answer for -- not just to employees, but more importantly to customers -- and still does. The company became the world's largest maker based on a carefully cultivated image of safety and quality. Today, that edifice is cracked and crumbling. The recall of millions of cars worldwide for sudden unintended acceleration (SUA) has Toyota drivers on edge.
And the recall issued to solve the problem -- trimming gas pedals to prevent them from getting snagged on heavy rubber floor mats -- seems unlikely to be the culprit in more than a few accidents that have led to 34 deaths, according the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In his testimony, Lentz admitted as much, saying that Toyota's Electronic Throttle Control System (ECTS) may be a possible culprit.
A day later, however, Toyoda and Toyota Motor North America President and CEO Yoshimi Inaba backpedaled, repeating time and time again that ECTS wasn't a source of SUA, despite previous testimony. On Tuesday, a Southern Illinois University professor told lawmakers he was able "to fool" the computer-controlled fuel delivery system on a 2010 Tacoma pickup truck. This meant he was able to mimic the out-of-control acceleration that some Toyota owners have been complained about since Toyota began widespread deployment of the system in 2002.
A Long Way To Go
From those divergent admissions from company officials emerged a sense that Toyota, despite a massive, folksy ad campaign to illustrate its contriteness and commitment to do a better job, still has a long way to go in being forthcoming and consistent. Anyone who followed this week's hearings got the sense another shoe is yet to drop, that ECTS may indeed be the culprit in many SUA incidents, rather than some half-baked story about gas pedals getting jammed by floor mats.
One thing that is certain: The spectacle isn't over yet. Next week, Toyota officials get to do the same thing all over again on the other side of the Capitol when U.S. senators will take their turn at grilling. One can only hope that Toyota officials will see they did little to enhance their image in baring their souls in testimony this week, and will commit to doing a better job in telling the truth, too.
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