So, where does Toyota go from here? How does the automaker gain back the confidence of its customers? In fact, can the company put things right?
It can, according to Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety, but it won't be easy.
"For the next year they have to bat 1,000," he told ConsumerAffairs.com. "If they make a mistake they have to correct it almost overnight."
Analyst Jessica Caldwell at the automotive Web site Edmunds.com agrees that Toyota can bounce back, but says, "It's going to take some time."
Toyota attempted to get the healing process started during the past week.
Appearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Jim Lentz, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales, USA, confessed that the automaker has not "lived up to the high standards our customers and the public have come to expect." Lentz said he is "confident that no problems exist with the electronic throttle control" relating to the unintended acceleration problem, but noted that the investigation continues.
Lentz apologized for what he called the company's "mistakes," adding that the company "must think differently when investigating complaints and communicate faster, better and more effectively with our customers and our regulators."
At the same hearing, Rhonda Smith of Sevierville, TN, told of a harrowing experience she had while driving her new Lexus 350 ES on October 12, 2006.
Smith told the panel she "lost all control of the acceleration of the vehicle" and that the car eventually reached a speed of 100 mph. She says she had the emergency brake on "while frantically shifting between all the gears (besides park) but mainly had it in reverse." After about three miles had passed, Smith adds, "I thought it was my time to die."
After traveling six miles, Smith says, the car began to slow -- by itself -- and by the time it reached 33 mph, she was able to turn the engine off.
The vehicle was towed to the dealership in Kingsport, TN, which said it would thoroughly check the problem. After several weeks, Smith says, "we were advised they could find nothing wrong with the car."
The mea culpas from the automaker continued a day later when Toyota Motor Corporation President Akio Toyoda told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that he takes "full responsibility" for the uncertainty about the safety of Toyota's vehicles that consumers are feeling.
In his prepared testimony, Toyoda said part of the problem is due to the fact that the company "pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization," -- in other words, the company grew too fast. He expressed regret "that this has resulted in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today," adding "I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced."
Ditlow says one way Toyota can help restore confidence is to meet its problems head on. "Every time they get a complaint of unintended acceleration, they need to have a team of engineers available to examine it, produce a written report, give it to NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), give it to the consumer."
According to Ditlow, the way Toyota handled - or failed to handle - the problem "did more damage" to the company's image than the problem itself. "No one expects a perfect vehicle," Ditlow concluded. "What you do expect is that when there is a problem, it will be fixed."
Edmunds.com's Caldwell tells ConsumerAffairs.com that Toyota can learn from its mistakes. "When you don't answer questions or have a press conference, people are left to their own devices and will make the story for Toyota."
She says if the company had taken a "firmer, more aggressive stance in the beginning, there wouldn't be just a complete witch hunt out there."