Reporting from Tokyo and Washington — The top official at Toyota Motor Corp. said he will not appear before congressional hearings probing a series of massive recalls of the automaker's cars.
Speaking to the media in Tokyo on Wednesday, Akio Toyoda, said he had full confidence in Toyota's North American chief, Yoshimi Inaba, who he indicated will appear before the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in Washington on Feb. 24. The House Energy and Commerce Committee has scheduled hearings the next day.
Toyoda said Inaba has his "highest personal trust" and is "qualified to respond to the questions and concerns of congressmen. . . . We will give our full support to those at the hearings."
Toyoda, the grandson of the company's founder, also disclosed that the automaker was considering yet another recall -- this time of its popular Corolla because of customer complaints about the car's power steering.
Toyoda's decision to avoid the House hearings drew the ire of legislative leaders.
"I would think given the tremendous scrutiny Mr. Toyoda and his company are under, he would have seized the opportunity to personally appear and use the hearing as a forum to move forward," said Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista), who has pressed for Toyoda to testify at a hearing on the recalls by the House oversight committee.
"Obviously, Mr. Toyoda is not as eager to give Congress and the American people answers as we first thought," Bardella said.
Issa, the top Republican on the committee, would support issuing a subpoena for Toyoda to testify, Bardella said.
Toyoda held out the possibility that he would travel to the U.S. but did not mention any date.
To answer what he called a "misunderstanding in the press," Toyoda said: "I'm not saying that I will never go to the U.S. I am adjusting my schedule to prepare for my visit . . . but can't be specific."
Toyoda's remarks came a day after federal regulators launched three far-reaching investigations into both the timeliness and the adequacy of the company's recalls for problems that can cause sudden acceleration in its vehicles.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration demanded a massive volume of Toyota documents, including engineering reports, internal communications and customer complaints involving sudden acceleration. The agency also asked Toyota to identify employees with knowledge of unintended acceleration.
Regulators said they were examining whether Toyota acted promptly in ordering a string of safety recalls and whether the company fully considered other potential causes of sudden acceleration besides interference from floor mats and sticking gas pedals.
Sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles has been blamed for at least 34 fatalities, according to complaints filed with NHTSA. The safety agency has received more than 2,000 complaints from Toyota owners about their cars lurching and speeding unintentionally.
Toyota has 30 to 60 days to provide the NHTSA with the paperwork requested for its investigation. A third-party investigation of the system will follow.
All future models, Toyoda said, will include a brake-override system, which cuts the engine when both the accelerator and brake pedals are pressed simultaneously.
New vehicles also will include an improved on-board event data recorder, a kind of "black box" for Toyota vehicles.
"Our investigative capability has not been fully satisfactory," said Shinichi Sasaki, Toyota's executive vice president.
Sasaki said Toyota is "ready to respond" and waiting on information from the NHTSA regarding the Corolla. He said the company is aware of fewer than 100 complaints and is trying to narrow down the causes.
Toyota has recalled about 8 million vehicles worldwide in recent months for a variety of problems, including about 6 million in the United States. About 2 million of those U.S. vehicles have been caught up in two different recalls.
Dealers began notifying customers of the recalls Feb. 5, the day of Toyoda's first official appearance at a news conference to address the company's multiple recalls.
Toyota sales have dropped 16% since the third week of January. To reduce the mounting inventory of Toyota vehicles, many have been sitting in dealers' lots following the recalls, the company plans to suspend manufacturing operations temporarily at two U.S. plants.
Toyota's largest North American facility, in Georgetown, Ky., will be closed for a week in March and in April. And its Tundra truck plant in San Antonio will be closed Feb. 26 and on additional days in March.
Toyoda also announced his intent to head up the company's newly created Special Committee for Global Quality, which will coordinate regional quality-control measures with chief quality officers. Its first meeting is scheduled for March 30.