Contrite CEO: Toyota 'Not Perfect'

Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda i i

hide captionToyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda, accompanied by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California (right), leaves a meeting Wednesday prior to testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Cliff Owen/AP
Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda

Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda, accompanied by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California (right), leaves a meeting Wednesday prior to testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Cliff Owen/AP

Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda told a congressional panel on Wednesday that, "I myself, as well as Toyota, are not perfect," as he apologized for safety defects that led to the recall of millions of his company's vehicles.

"We always stop and try to understand the problem. We never run away from a problem or pretend we don't know about it," the grandson of the founder of the world's largest automaker told lawmakers.

In light of the recall of more than 8 million vehicles worldwide, Toyoda said the automaker is making strides in addressing safety concerns. He said the company has made an effort to cut the lag time between customer complaints and company investigations.

"The most important lesson that I have learned is with respect to the customer-first philosophy," Toyoda, 53, said through an interpreter.

And Yoshimi Inaba, the president of Toyota Motor North America, told lawmakers the company has created "SWAT teams" that aim to begin investigations within 24 hours of receipt of a complaint.

"We are trying very hard to really put customers first," he said.

The chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-NY), said blame must be shared by both Toyota and U.S. safety regulators.

Towns said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration failed to follow through aggressively on thousands of complaints dating back a decade about sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles. The agency "failed the taxpayers, and Toyota failed their customers," Towns declared.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood defended federal regulators during his testimony, saying, "On my watch, we've been a lapdog for nobody."

'My Name Is On Every Car'

A contrite Toyoda said he is "deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced" because of the design flaw that causes the accelerator to stick even after the driver's foot is removed. The worldwide recall affects some 8.5 million vehicles.

"I will do everything in my power to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again," Toyoda said. "My name is on every car. You have my personal commitment that Toyota will work vigorously and unceasingly to restore the trust of our customers."

He also offered his condolences over the deaths of four members of a San Diego family who were killed in late August when their Lexus sped out of control. The mother of one of the victims, an off-duty California highway patrolman, was expected to testify.

"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," Toyoda said, explaining that too-rapid growth at his company may have led to the problems.

"We are not able to stop, think and make improvements as we have before," he said.

He said the company would do a better job of communicating about defects within the company. Toyoda expressed confidence that "with these repairs, Toyotas will remain among the safest on the road."

LaHood Faults Toyota's Business Model

Earlier, LaHood was asked why the government did not push Toyota to start its recall sooner. He responded that NHTSA gets tens of thousands of complaints each year regarding numerous issues and auto brands. He said the agency acts when it sees patterns emerge.

The Transportation Department and NHTSA will "work 24/7 until we are sure every Toyota is safe to drive," LaHood said. "When people complain, we investigate. When a recall is needed, we do it."

He suggested Toyota's business model — in which most decisions made for the company's U.S. arm are made in Japan — had failed the automaker. "The information was being passed ... but the outcomes that people wanted in North America did not always come to pass," LaHood said.

LaHood recently took heat from Toyota dealers after suggesting that Americans with cars listed for recall should stop driving them. On Wednesday, when asked whether the vehicles were safe to drive, he backed off only slightly.

Cars recalled for the accelerator problems, including such popular models as the Camry, Corolla and Matrix, "are not safe," LaHood said. "We determined these cars are not safe."

Testimony Closely Watched In Japan

Toyoda initially declined to come before the panel, but agreed to testify after he was officially invited last week.

Japan's national Asahi newspaper said in an editorial that Toyoda's testimony "not only determines Toyota's fate, but may affect all Japanese companies and consumer confidence in their products. President Toyoda has a heavy load on his shoulders."

Toyoda's testimony is being closely watched in Japan, where the culture frowns on the kind of open confrontation he's likely to face on Capitol Hill, said Paul Argenti, a professor of corporate communications at Dartmouth College.

"Congress is going to take its gloves off and use Toyota as a punching bag, just as it has other companies and industries in the past," he said.

Toyota Strikes Deal With N.Y. State

The appearance by Toyoda comes a day after the automaker's top U.S. executive, Jim Lentz, told the committee that Toyota had overreached.

"I think we outgrew our engineering resource," said Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA. "And the most important thing is that we lost sight of the customer." He acknowledged that 70 percent of complaints about unintended acceleration remained unexplained.

"That is probably fair to say," he said. "There are many factors that lead to it."

Lentz also maintained that electronic controls were not an issue. He said company engineers have identified two mechanical problems that cause unintended acceleration: loose floor mats that entrap accelerator pedals, and pedals that stick because of wear.

Dealerships are working around the clock to make repairs, he said.

Toyota said Wednesday it will offer free at-home pickup of vehicles covered by the national safety recall, pay for customers' out-of-pocket transportation costs and provide drivers free rental cars during repairs.

The deal — costs to the company weren't specified — was initially announced as part of an agreement between Toyota and New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo. But hours later under questioning during the congressional hearing, a senior Toyota executive said the company was extending the same benefits nationwide.

From NPR staff and wire reports

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