Support grew for changes to vehicle braking systems, as a congressional hearing into unintended acceleration confronted Toyota Motor Corp executives with a 2006 internal document warning of quality problems.
The presentation by Jim Press, then-president of Toyota Motor North America, came three years before a crash in San Diego that killed four people and triggered the recalls now covering over 8.5 million vehicles worldwide.
Press also warned the company was facing growing problems with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Rockefeller closed an all-day hearing into Toyota's safety problems by criticizing the testimony of three company executives and saying he believed mandatory brake override systems were required in addition to the floor mat and sticky pedal recalls.
Rockefeller's frustration with the witnesses, including Toyota North America's current president, Yoshi Inaba, spilled over at the end of the hearing.
I think there is more knowledge at the table than has disclosed itself, he said, reminding the three that Toyota President Akio Toyoda had already said at hearings last week that corporate growth had been put in front of safety.
In Japanese culture and in Japanese corporations, things do not happen by chance. They happen by decision, said Rockefeller, who had earlier told the hearing he had worked hard to bring a Toyota plant to Buffalo, West Virginia.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had earlier testified that safety regulators may require all new cars to have braking systems that tell the engine to return to idle.
As a part of our investigation and review we are looking at the possibility of recommending the brake override system in all manufactured automobiles, he told the committee.
The brake override fix would potentially answer all sources of unintended acceleration, including driver error, when both the brake and accelerator are pressed simultaneously.
Toyota estimates that about 20 percent of vehicles sold in the U.S. market have brake override systems. That includes vehicles sold by Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Chrysler.
Toyota has said it will make brake override standard on all 2011 models and will install the software for the system on some models going back to 2005.
MORE DEATHS PROBED
Unintended acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles has been linked with at least five U.S. crash deaths since 2007.
Authorities are investigating 47 other crash deaths over the past decade associated with complaints of alleged unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles, the U.S. Department of Transportation said.
Two major recalls over the past five months have focused on mechanical explanations for acceleration problems, including loose floor mats that can jam the accelerator and sticky accelerator pedals that do not spring back as designed.
The recalls have badly dented Toyota's reputation for safety and hurt its sales, which fell 8.7 percent in the United States in February, prompting the automaker to announce marketing incentives.
During last year's bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler, U.S. automakers were often exhorted to be more like their Japanese rivals. We're not hearing that anymore, said Senator Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey.
Toyota's Inaba reiterated the company's apology for losing customer focus during its period of rapid global growth.
We sincerely regret that our shortcomings have resulted in the issues associated with our recent recalls, Inaba said, adding that Toyota dealers have so far fixed more than 1 million recalled vehicles.
He and other Toyota executives detailed quality control changes to address concerns raised at the Senate hearing and at two hearings last week by the House of Representatives.
Executives in North America will have more authority over recall decision-making and safety will be given a sharper focus in vehicle design.
LaHood also said it was imperative that Toyota put a high-ranking U.S. executive in charge of U.S. safety issues and said the law regulating how former regulators can be employed by the auto industry needs to be tightened up.
Lawmakers, safety advocates and consumers have questioned whether enough attention has been paid to the possibility that electronic throttle glitches are behind at least some of Toyota's problems with unintended acceleration since 2002.
Toyota's chief engineer, Takeshi Uchiyamada, said Toyota has extensively tested its electronic throttles and found no problems, but said he was open to an outside assessment, including by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences.
Rockefeller said he would work on legislation to address safety oversight of the entire industry, not just Toyota, and reserved some of his sharpest criticism for NHTSA.
Until Toyota's first big recall in October, NHTSA had taken only modest action to address rising consumer complaints of unintended acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles.
NHTSA's actions and inactions in the years leading up to today are deeply troubling, said Rockefeller.
But NHTSA's new chief, David Strickland, defended agency investigations of Toyota, saying its response was absolutely appropriate.
Strickland also said Toyota's large U.S. market share had boosted the number of complaints. They had the same percentage of sudden acceleration issues as other manufacturers.
(Reporting by John Crawley; Additional reporting by Karey Wutkowski and Kim Dixon in Washington, and Bernie Woodall in Detroit; Writing by Tim Dobbyn; Editing by Maureen Bavdek and Matthew Lewis)