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Toyota president apologizes at House hearing

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'I fear the pace at which we have grown may have been too quick,' says Akio Toyoda, on the second day of hearings on the automaker's safety problems.

February 25, 2010|By Jim Puzzanghera and Michael Muskal
  • Toyota President Akio Toyoda prepares to testify on Capitol Hill before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He initially had declined to appear before Congress.
Toyota President Akio Toyoda prepares to testify on Capitol Hill before… (Olivier Douliery / Abaca…)

Reporting from Los Angeles and Washington — Declaring that he and his company were "not perfect," the president of Toyota Motor Corp. apologized Wednesday for the safety concerns of customers and accidents -- specifically a horrific California crash last summer -- caused by sudden acceleration in the automaker's vehicles.

"Toyota has, for the past few years, been expanding its business rapidly. Quite frankly, I fear the pace at which we have grown may have been too quick," Akio Toyoda, the grandson of the company's founder, told a congressional committee.

Somber-faced and speaking in halting English, Toyoda read from a 2 1/4 -page prepared statement. His three-hour testimony came after dozens of cameras recorded him standing and raising his right hand to be sworn in before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. It was the second day of congressional hearings about the automaker's safety problems.

"We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization, and we should sincerely be mindful of that," he continued. "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 extended condolences to the family of off-duty California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor, who was killed along with three members of his family in August in an accident in suburban San Diego County. The accident, in a Toyota-made Lexus, helped trigger Toyota's massive recalls to address unintended acceleration.

"I would like to send my prayers again, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again," Toyoda said.

After he testified, Fe Niosco Lastrella of Vallejo, Calif., the mother of two of the victims in the crash, told the committee that federal regulators should conduct a thorough investigation of Toyota's safety issues.

"We don't want another family to suffer like we are suffering," she said, fighting back tears.

Toyoda was joined by Yoshimi Inaba, the president and chief executive of Toyota Motor North America, Inc., who agreed to extend nationwide a commitment he made to the New York attorney general to have recalled vehicles picked up at the homes of owners who are afraid to drive them. Under the New York agreement, Toyota owners also will be given a free loaner vehicle until the repairs are completed.

Inaba said the company was cooperating fully with U.S. regulators investigating the safety problems. Toyoda promised to improve communications with regulators. And he reiterated his plan to develop a special committee on global quality, which he personally will head, that will take into account consumer perspectives on safety issues.

Committee Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) praised Toyoda for voluntarily agreeing to travel from Japan to testify. But Toyoda, who used a translator to answer questions, soon came under fire.

In questioning the executive through a translator, Towns expressed frustration when he could not get a straight answer about why the company was not offering to install a brake-override system in all of its existing vehicles.

After a lengthy answer from Toyoda, Towns asked, "Is that a yes or no? That's what I'm trying to get to."

Inaba stepped in to explain that the new override system, which allows a driver to stop runaway acceleration by stepping on the brake, would be installed in all new North American vehicles produced this year and 72% of the recalled vehicles. The rest are older vehicles that are not possible to retrofit, Inaba said.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said it was difficult for customers to regain trust in Toyota when new safety issues keep arising.

"The problem is it's one thing to say you're sorry, it's another thing when it seems as if time after time there are pronouncements that problems are being addressed and over and over again they seem like they're not being addressed," Cummings said.

Toyoda said he regretted accidents caused by the safety issues, but said thorough testing by the company had found no further problems in the electronic system that controls vehicle acceleration. Inaba said "my level of confidence is 100%" that the problems were not related to the electronic throttle control.

But the testimony didn't satisfy some lawmakers, who chastised the executives for the safety problems. Rep. John R. Mica (R-Fla.) told Toyoda flatly, "I'm embarrassed for you, sir." Mica said he was "appalled" at an internal Toyota document from July that bragged that the company's Washington office had saved hundreds of millions of dollars by persuading federal officials to limit or avoid safety recalls or rules.

Inaba said he did not recall the memo and that it was "inconsistent with the guiding principle of Toyota."

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