Toyota President Akio Toyoda prepares to testify on Capitol Hill before… (Olivier Douliery / Abaca…)
Reporting from Washington — Apologizing for Toyota's missteps in dealing with defects blamed in dozens of fatalities, a contrite Akio Toyoda told members of Congress that his company's rapid growth had "confused" the priority it places on safety.
"Quite frankly, I fear the pace at which we have grown may have been too quick," the president of Toyota Motor Corp. said during more than three hours of testimony. "I regret that this has resulted in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today, and I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced."
Toyoda, grandson of the company founder, had initially planned to skip Wednesday's appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He changed his mind amid escalating investigations of Toyota's handling of the sudden-acceleration problem, including probes by Congress, a federal grand jury in New York, the Transportation Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Toyoda told the House panel that he became aware of the sudden-acceleration issue late last year, despite the company's 2007 recall in the U.S. market to replace floor mats that could have caused sudden acceleration in two models.
Members of the House committee raised a wide range of broader concerns about the company's secrecy, its practice of making all of its safety decisions in Japan and the company's insular culture.
And Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in testimony that preceded Toyoda's that the company was "safety deaf," a problem he blamed on what he called the company's "failed business model" that prevented staff in North America from making decisions on safety, instead being forced to defer to Japan.
The company wasn't taking the current safety problems seriously, LaHood noted, until he dispatched a senior aide to Japan late last year.
But LaHood came under tough questioning as well and was pointedly asked by Rep. Judy Chu (D-El Monte) if his department simply did the auto industry's bidding. "I am not a lap dog for anybody, and none of my employees are either," LaHood shot back.
The hearing took place in a committee room jammed with 28 House members and nearly 50 staffers, along with dozens more from the news media and Toyota itself.
Congressional veterans could not recall a similar instance in which the head of a Japanese auto company had been pressured into appearing before an adversarial committee hearing, although it has become almost routine for U.S. corporate executives.
Ulrike Schaede, a professor of Japanese business at UC San Diego, said she was impressed with the skill in which Toyoda and Toyota Motor North America President Yoshimi Inaba fielded the questions.
"They're in there and answering questions in detail," she said. "They're very calm, not defensive. They've been apologetic and informative."
During his appearance, Toyoda appeared to agree to extend nationally an agreement with the New York attorney general to pick up recalled vehicles at owners' homes and provide free loaner vehicles until repairs are completed.
Toyoda conceded that in the past all of the company's safety decisions were made in Japan, but that it intended to create an "automotive center of excellence" in the U.S. and establish a product safety executive.
A tense moment came when the executives were asked to explain an internal company document, released by congressional investigators Sunday, in which Toyota officials boasted of saving hundreds of millions of dollars by getting federal highway safety regulators to limit the scope of recalls.
Toyoda said he didn't know anything about the issue and Inaba said he could not remember the meeting where it was briefed "with any depth." "It is so inconsistent with the values of Toyota," Inaba said.
But Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) had a tougher assessment, saying, "I think you've done a great injustice, sir, to undermine the good working people and the company's reputation. This discredits everyone."
Nonetheless, Toyoda did not admit to any engineering or design problems, but rather cast the sudden-acceleration controversy as a matter of losing touch with customers.
That stood in contrast to testimony by James E. Lentz, Toyota's top U.S. sales executive, who on Tuesday told the House Energy and Commerce Committee that the automaker could not totally rule out the electronics as a cause of sudden acceleration.
Undeterred, committee members repeatedly bore down on the issue of whether acceleration problems of Toyota vehicles, the subject of about 2,600 complaints to federal safety regulators, go beyond the blame placed by the company on misplaced floor mats and sticky gas pedals to the much more serious problem of an electronic defect.
Toyoda said his "personal confidence level is 100%" that no defect exists in the company's electronic throttles, but LaHood said the question remained open and appeared to shift slightly to suggest the possibility of such a problem was greater than he has said in the past.
"We don't have evidence today to say conclusively that there are electronic problems," LaHood said. "We have had complaints about electronics." He promised the committee to "get into the weeds" in investigating the question.
Pressed to say whether Toyota vehicles are safe to drive, LaHood said, "For those cars listed on our website for recall, those are not safe. Those cars need to go back to the dealer and get fixed, because they are not safe."
Kathleen Hennessey of the Times-Tribune Washington Bureau contributed to this report.