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Toyota recall: Automaker focused more on damage control than fixes?

A top Toyota executive appeared Thursday before lawmakers skeptical of the automaker's approach. The Toyota recall was prompted by acceleration problems.

A visitor looks at the Toyota Lexus LS650hL at a Toyota showroom in Tokyo, Wednesday. Toyota said Wednesday it will recall 4,500 Lexus vehicles in Japan to fix a computerized steering problem, with another 7,000 vehicles overseas also likely affected. Lawmakers remain skeptical of the automaker's approach.

Shizuo Kambayashi/AP

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A top executive of Toyota sought to defend his company Thursday against criticism that it appears more focused on fighting lawsuits than on fixing so-called "sudden acceleration" in its cars.

Appearing before a skeptical congressional panel, Toyota Motor Sales USA president James Lentz said the automaker is "taking major steps to become a more responsive, safety-focused organization."

But lawmakers on a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, reviewing documents from the company, said the firm has gone to extraordinary efforts to rebut critics – while doing too little research on the nature of the problem.

Committee chairman Henry Waxman (D) of California said that a number of fatal accidents "have occurred in vehicles that did not have faulty floor mats or sticky pedals." The Toyota recall-related fixes so far have focused on fixing floor mats and pedals.

The hearing centered on Toyota's efforts to debunk claims that electronic-control systems in the cars may have been at fault. Toyota hired Exponent, a consulting firm, to research the issue. But Representative Waxman and other lawmakers said this effort focused on casting doubt on expert witnesses that plaintiffs may use in court.

"Toyota says that Exponent’s work is 'comprehensive' and 'independent,' but the documents reviewed by the committee do not support these assertions," Waxman said. Rather, he said, an Exponent engineer told the committee that the consulting firm has no written list of the potential causes to be explored, because doing so might "limit the creativity" of the engineers.

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