Reporting from Toyota City, Japan, and Seoul — Standing side by side, Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Monday vowed to improve communication as U.S. regulators continued their scrutiny of quality breakdowns that led to a major recall of Toyota vehicles.
At a wide-ranging news conference held at Toyota headquarters here, Toyoda pledged that the Japanese carmaker was "sharing information across regions on a more timely basis," adding, "This is contributing to quick action."
Dressed in dark suit with a white and navy-colored striped tie and looking tense, he also promised to improve quality assurance in all Toyota vehicles. "I have devoted myself to advancing this effort by leading a new Special Committee for Global Quality," he said. "It is my top priority."
Toyoda said his company has established a North America Quality Advisory Fund, chaired by former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, and has also appointed a chief quality officer for North America.
LaHood had arrived in Japan promising to deliver the world's leading automaker a stern message that U.S. regulators will not tolerate safety violations that endanger the public.
In a 25-minute session, LaHood told reporters that his delegation of U.S. transportation officials had met with Toyota executives for what he described as a frank dialogue. He applauded Toyoda for the various appointments and new structures within the company to further product safety.
"I told Mr. Toyoda today, these are very encouraging steps, but we will watch very carefully for improvements in safety and results in safety," LaHood said.
"The proof is in the pudding. We will continue to be vigilant about the safety of drivers in America."
LaHood's trip, a rare high-level meeting between a U.S. Cabinet secretary and a Japanese manufacturer over safety concerns, comes as both sides continue to feel the glare of public scrutiny. Since last fall, Toyota has issued nearly 11 million recall notices for its vehicles worldwide and faces a host of political, legal and regulatory probes.
But the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has also come under fire for its handling of the Toyota defect scandal. In the last eight years, the agency closed multiple investigations involving Toyota despite thousands of complaints and allegations of several dozen deaths caused by sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles.
When asked at the press conference if Toyota had purposely withheld information from the NHTSA related to a 2004 steering rod relay recall, Toyoda said: "We do tend to take time getting down to the cause of problems, but we have never hidden information or attempted to conceal anything since our company started."
In an interview with The Times before leaving Washington, LaHood said the NHTSA was examining 500,000 internal documents turned over by Toyota in an attempt to determine precisely when the carmaker began to withhold information about its vehicle defects.
At times appearing on the defensive, LaHood said it will take time to go through the mountain of documents, saying only that U.S. officials took the case seriously.
""It will be a while before we have time to complete our review " he said, responding to a query about what, if anything, the documents had so far revealed and if LaHood asked Toyoda about the documents.
"I wouldn't presume to think that Mr. Toyoda would know what was in 500,000 documents, so no, I didn't ask him what was in there."
Toyota recently agreed to pay the U.S. government a record $16.4-million civil fine -- the maximum allowed by law -- on charges that it delayed recalls on its defective accelerators for months.
NHTSA officials have said they are conducting several investigations to determine whether Toyota violated U.S. safety laws and may issue additional fines. The automaker also faces more than 100 customer lawsuits.
LaHood announced that he will also visit two other Japanese automakers -- Honda and Nissan -- on this trip.
Toyoda evoked some laughter when he said he planned to visit the U.S. more often and to personally explain to customers improvements being made.
He also said he planned more trips to Washington.
Referring to two tense days he spent addressing the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in late February, he quipped: "Please don't get me wrong, that doesn't mean I'm asking for another invitation to another hearing."
Nagano is a Tokyo-based freelance writer