Analysts: Toyota Hearing Left Unanswered Questions

After weeks of recalls and stumbles, the scion of the Toyota family spoke directly to the American people about the company's greatest crisis in the United States. Auto industry observers say he did a good job conveying his concern for customers but left other critical questions unanswered.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're going to follow up this morning on the testimony of the CEO of the biggest company in Japan. Toyota's chief executive appeared before Congress yesterday. His remarks included a dramatic apology for auto safety problems. They did not include some details that experts wanted to hear. This morning, we'll get a response from several audiences. They range from American lawmakers, to auto experts, to people in Japan.

We begin with NPR's Frank Langfitt.

FRANK LANGFITT: People who follow the auto business say Akio Toyoda faced a tough task yesterday. Among other things, he had to recognize those who had lost their lives in the vehicles that bear his family's name. Here's how three industry observers described it.

JEREMY ANWYL: Clearly, you have to acknowledge the tragedy.

JOHN SHOOK: The most important thing is to reassure the public.

AARON BRAGMAN: He needed to also essentially fall on his sword and say, look, this is our fault.

LANGFITT: That was Jeremy Anwyl of Edmunds.com, the car consumer Web site, John Shook, a former Toyota employee and manufacturing consultant and Aaron Bragman, an analyst with IHS Global Insight. All three thought Akiyo Toyoda started strong. Reading from a prepared statement, he addressed consumers head on.

AKIYO TOYODA: Our customers have started to feel uncertain about the safety of Toyota's vehicle. And I take full responsibility for that.

LANGFITT: As members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee listened, Toyoda went farther. He said his company, now the world's largest automaker, lost track of quality in its push for quantity.

TOYODA: We pursued growth over the speed at which we are able to develop our people and our organization, and I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced.

LANGFITT: But when the hearing soon turned to questions, Toyoda, the grandson of the company's founder, did not have many detailed answers. Toyota's blamed acceleration problems on sticking gas pedals and faulty floor mats, but that accounts for less than half of customer complaints. Some safety advocates think the problem lies with Toyota's electronic throttle controls - ETC in car speak. Akiyo Toyoda rejected that notion. Speaking through an interpreter, he said the company had tested its throttle controls.

TOYODA: (Through translator) No malfunction or problems were identified.

LANGFITT: But Toyoda offered no other explanation for what could be causing the additional acceleration problems.

BRAGMAN: There is still a lot that needs to be answered, I think, in terms of these issues.

LANGFITT: That's Aaron Bragman, the analyst with IHS Global Insight. He thinks Toyota has to make a stronger case or come up with other answers.

BRAGMAN: They are adamant that there is no electronics issue, but there doesn't seem to be a whole lot of testing data that they can turn to. Japanese companies are very data driven in terms of their decision making, and it's kind of surprising that we haven't seen a lot of the data. That would go a long way.

LANGFITT: During the House hearing, which stretched for hours, Toyoda faced difficult questions from Congress members. Here's Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat.

ELIJAH CUMMINGS: How do you say to your customers - the people who take their hard-earned dollars in a tough economic time and spend them on a Toyota vehicle - how do you say to them that we can trust you now?

LANGFITT: Legislators also heard from a member of a family whose deaths turned sudden acceleration into a national safety issue.

FE LASTRELLA: I am Fe Lastrella.

LANGFITT: Lastrella lost four family members in a runaway Lexus last year in San Diego. Her son-in-law, Mark Saylor, an off-duty California highway patrolman, was at the wheel. The car reached 120 miles an hour with Saylor trying to jam on the breaks before it crashed. Lastrella recalled that years ago, Saylor had rescued a car accident victim himself.

LASTRELLA: He saved the life of the man who was trapped in his car, burning car, and it is ironic he saved someone, but he was not able to save his family.

LANGFITT: Toyoda personally apologized to Lastrella's family, and he pledged to do all he could to make sure something like that never happens again. But for legislators and some consumers, that probably won't be enough. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says it's conducting a thorough review of electronic throttles, and a Senate hearing is planned for Tuesday.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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