WASHINGTON - Massive recalls of popular Toyota cars and trucks still may "not totally" solve frightening problems of sudden, unintended acceleration, the company's U.S. sales chief conceded Tuesday, a day before the Japanese president of the world's largest automaker confronts angry U.S. lawmakers.
House members listened in rapt silence to the tearful testimony of a woman whose car unaccountably surged to 100 mph, then they pressed U.S. sales chief James Lentz on the company's efforts to fix the acceleration problems - actions many suggested were too late and too limited.
Lentz apologized repeatedly for safety defects that led to recalls of some 8.5 million Toyota cars and trucks, and he acknowledged the changes the company is making probably aren't the end of the story.
"We are vigilant and we continue to look for potential causes," he said.
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.
In an often contentious full day of testimony, lawmakers returned again and again to the question of whether electronic malfunctions may have contributed to the speeding cars.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told the panel that possible electronics problems were being looked into by his agency. He said Toyota's recalls were important steps but "we don't maintain that they answer every question."
Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), the subcommittee's chairman, said the company "all but ignored pleas from consumers" to examine complaints of sudden unintended acceleration.
"They misled the American public by saying that they and other independent sources had thoroughly examined the electronics system."
But Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton cautioned his colleagues early in the hearing against conducting a "witch hunt."
"We don't want to just assume automatically that Toyota has done something wrong and has tried to cover it up," he said.
But midway through Lentz's testimony, Barton said of Toyota's investigation: "In my opinion, it's a sham."
Three congressional panels are investigating Toyota's problems. The automaker 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 hybrid.
It is also investigating steering concerns in Corollas. Toyota owners have complained of their vehicles speeding out of control despite efforts to slow down, sometimes resulting in deadly crashes.
Lentz, who choked up while discussing the death of his own brother more than 20 years ago in a car accident, said he understood the pain.
"I know what those families go through," he said.
At one point in more than two hours of testimony, Lentz was asked by Rep. Eliot Engel (D-Bronx) whether there were any new bombshells to come.
"God, I hope there aren't any more," Lentz said. "We stubbed our toe."