Toyota Chief To Appear Before Congressional Panel
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
For Toyota, round one on Capitol Hill began with an apology. The head of Toyota's U.S. operations told congressmen, yesterday, that the carmaker had made mistakes in responding to complaints about safety problems. Today, we'll hear the much anticipated testimony of the company's CEO, the grandson of the company's founder, Akio Toyoda.
Joining us now, is NPR's Brian Naylor who's been following the story. Good morning.
BRIAN NAYLOR: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: So what can we expect to hear from Toyota's CEO, who was known, up until recently, in Japan, as the prince, but in recent days has acquired the nickname No-Show Akio for his low-profile reaction to this recall? Who's going to show up today?
NAYLOR: Well, that's right, and it was unclear whether he would come to Washington. But he's decided that he will. And whoever shows up can expect some tough questions from lawmakers. They grilled the president of the company's American affiliate yesterday, for several hours. According to his prepared testimony, Mr. Toyoda will apologize again, say he's deeply sorry for any accidents the company's cars have caused; and he'll say that as it became the world's largest automaker, the company grew too fast, its priorities became confused and was unable to stop, think, and make improvements as much as possible.
MONTAGNE: Where has the U.S. government's role been so far in the Toyota recalls?
NAYLOR: That's a big question, Renee, that investigators are trying to get to the bottom of. According to transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who testified yesterday and will again today - since he's been sworn in, at least, it's been a substantial role. He said it was pressure from NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that got Toyota to order the recalls. Here's what he said to the committee that is looking into the recalls in yesterday's testimony.
RAY LAHOOD: Last week, I announced that we're investigating whether Toyota acted quickly enough in reporting these safety defects to NHTSA, as well as whether they took all appropriate action to protect consumers. We have asked Toyota to turn over a wide range of documents which will show us when and how they learned about these safety problems.
MONTAGNE: Of course, a lot of these issues predate LaHood and the Obama administration.
NAYLOR: Right, he's not been willing to criticize his predecessors, but the government first became aware of Toyota's problems with sliding floor mats in 2007, although complaints went back even earlier. And we may hear, down the road, from some of the Bush administration officials. But what we've learned is that NHTSA lacks the expertise to conduct research into the electronics problems that many believe are at the root of the unintended acceleration, no one with expertise in the computer software that's proliferated on newer cars. And there was an unwillingness to order recalls. There was a memo released by lawmakers, in which Toyota boasted of a win for Toyota when it was able to convince NHTSA officials not to order recalls but just simply recall the floor mats. It saved the company $100 million.
MONTAGNE: Well, so what is the future role of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NHTSA?
NAYLOR: Well, the Obama administration says it wants to hire more staff, give it a bigger budget. LaHood says it's taking a very proactive role, conducting its own investigations now. The agency, he said, is going to get into the weeds in the issue of possible defects. And they have taken a much more proactive role - they're investigating Toyota's brakes now, for the Prius, and steering complaints into Toyota Corollas.
MONTAGNE: Well, if you've got a yes or no answer to this, very briefly, will this satisfy critics?
NAYLOR: I think that critics say even more needs to be done, that NHTSA - one of the big things is they need to - the authority to fine automakers much more than they can right now, for violating regulations about recalls.
MONTAGNE: Brian, thanks very much.
NAYLOR: Thank you, Renee.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Brian Naylor.
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