Oversight Panel Grills Toyota Chief, LaHood

Posted February 24, 2010 at 6:41pm

Toyota Motor Corp. executives attempted to assuage lawmaker outrage on Wednesday, heaping humility on House investigators and pledging to be transparent in determining why millions of its cars have been recalled over safety concerns.

In a rare Congressional appearance by a foreign executive, Toyota President Akio Toyoda told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that he takes “full responsibility” for the recall of roughly 5.3 million of the automaker’s vehicles because of malfunctioning gas pedals.

Toyoda, whose grandfather started the Japanese company more than 70 years ago, also told lawmakers that his firm is not withholding information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal regulator responsible for investigating the allegedly faulty accelerators in 14 of the automaker’s car and truck lines, including the popular Camry, Corolla and Tundra models.

“All of the information we have we have shared with the authorities,” Toyoda told the panel on Wednesday through an interpreter.

In hours of testimony, Toyoda faced pointed questions from lawmakers who have been overwhelmed by constituents scared to drive their cars out of fear they may unexpectedly accelerate at any moment. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), whose Cleveland-area district once employed thousands of former Big Three U.S. autoworkers, told the top executive of the world’s largest car company that she did not detect “significant remorse” in his testimony.

“I feel deeply sorry for those who lost their lives or were injured in traffic accidents, especially those who were driving our cars,” he said. “I have been trying to convey my sincere beliefs, but the fact that you said it was inadequate is something that I will sincerely reflect upon.”

Toyoda’s deputy, Toyota Motor North America Inc. President and CEO Yoshimi Inaba, assured lawmakers on Wednesday that the ongoing recall fixes “are effective and durable.”

“We are confident that vehicles whose drivers are not experiencing any issues with their accelerator pedal are safe to drive, and Toyota dealers are rapidly completing the repairs on our customers’ vehicles,” Inaba said.

Both executives also reiterated previous claims by Toyota management that the recalls were due in part to the automaker’s rapid growth, which culminated last year when the Japanese company overtook General Motors Corp. as the world’s largest automobile manufacturer.

“We now understand that we must think more from a customer-first perspective rather than a technical perspective in investigating complaints, and that we must communicate faster, better and more effectively with our customers and our regulators,” Inaba said. “Nothing matters more to Toyota than the safety and reliability of the vehicles our customers drive.”

“We are committed not only to fixing vehicles on the road and ensuring they are safe, but to making our new vehicles better and even more reliable through a redoubled focus on putting our customers first,” he added.

Earlier on Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former GOP House Member from Illinois, endured nearly three hours of questioning involving the Toyota recalls. For now, LaHood told lawmakers that his agency agrees with Toyota that mechanical errors — and not software malfunctions — are to blame.

“We don’t have evidence right now to say conclusively that there are electronics problems,” LaHood said.

In a lively back-and-forth with his former colleagues, LaHood also called Toyota “safety deaf” to customers’ concerns but called Toyoda’s appearance before the panel “a game changer.”

“We’re going to hold Toyota’s feet to the fire,” LaHood told the panel.

As of press time Wednesday, the marathon hearing was heading into its seventh hour with the third of three panels still waiting to testify: Public Citizens President Emeritus Joan Claybrook, former administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Clarence Ditlow and Center for Auto Safety Executive Director Fe Lastrella.