During an interview with ABC News on a Manhattan street, Toyota's U.S. president Jim Lentz denied that the international car company had hidden problems with acceleration in its vehicles, or was trying to blame sticky gas pedals for a problem that may originate in the car's electrical system instead.
ABC News asked Lentz if it was true that Toyota had been covering up problems with runaway acceleration in its vehicles for years. Government documents show that Toyota first fielded reports of "runaway Toyotas" in March 2007.
Lentz responded by saying, "Right now, what's important is we're here to get the news out to our customers."
Asked again to answer allegations of a cover-up, Lentz stated flatly, "There is no cover-up."
"How long have you known about this problem of the runaway cars," asked ABC News, "not just the sticky gas pedals?"
"It's a lot of detail that goes into this," said Lentz. "We've been upfront. We're taking care of customers right now. What's most important is that our customers know there is a fix. They're going to be able to get their cars repaired this week."
ABC News asked Lentz if all problems with the cars had been fixed, including any electronic problems.
"I'm confident that there are no electronic problems," answered Lentz.
Lentz had been on a media blitz Monday to restore confidence in consumers, and to announce plans to fix that the company believes is causing the sudden acceleration problem.
In a release, the company said it will begin fixing accelerator pedals this week by reinforcing the pedal assembly, thereby eliminating friction that sometimes causes the sudden acceleration to occur. Lentz told NBC's Today Show that the reinforcement parts have been shipped today and that dealers have been trained on how to install them. He said the company became aware of the sticky pedal problems last October and denied that the company's rapid growth hindered their ability to quickly identify and resolve the issues.
"I apologize for this situation and I hope you'll give us a chance to earn back your trust," said Lentz, adding that customers will be notified via mail on how affected models can be remedied.
Fix Too Little, Too Late, Experts Said
Yet, some safety analysts say the announcement comes too little, too late.
"They're at a point where their reputation is rapidly declining, and the credibility is rapidly declining in a way where probably no one would have expected," said safety expert Sean Kane.
In Washington, the failure of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to spot the problem sooner is also drawing questions.
"There's no reason they could not have known about this and been further involved in pushing Toyota," said former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook. Claybrook is also the former president of Public Citizen, a public interest advocacy group.
Documents filed with the federal government by Toyota show the company first received field reports of the sticking gas pedals more than two years ago and, by last October, saw a growing problem.
"Starting in March 2007, Toyota received field technical information regarding reports of accelerator pedals demonstrating symptoms such as rough operation or being slow to return to the idea position," a letter sent from Toyota to the NHTSA Jan. 21 says.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday that when his agency discovered the gas pedals on some models of Toyotas were sticking "we immediately told Toyota that they should recall those cars."
Speaking on a Chicago radio program, LaHood said a fatal accident in September led his agency to demand a meeting with the car manufacturer.
"The truth is, the reason Toyota decided to do the recall and to stop manufacturing is because we asked them to," LaHood told WGN Radio.
NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said the agency "informed Toyota of their obligations and they complied with the law. Their decision to halt sales was legally and morally the right thing to do."