Toyota chief apologizes for recalls

Calling the huge recall of Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles a “moment of crisis” for the world’s largest automaker, the company’s head formally apologized Friday and said he personally would lead a special committee to improve quality control.

“I am deeply sorry about the inconvenience and concern caused to our customers and others,” a grim Akio Toyoda, the company’s president and chief executive, said at a hastily called news conference at the company’s headquarters in Nagoya, Japan. “We, the ones supposed to relate to people the attractiveness of automobiles have instead imparted on them worry. I regret this more than anything.”

But Toyoda, the grandson of the legendary automaker’s founder, did not announce a recall of the company’s popular Prius hybrid, which is the focus of government investigations in Japan and the United States for brake problems. The vehicles also have other possible glitches, including headlights that suddenly go dark, The Times reported Friday.

Some had expected Toyota to announce a recall of about 270,000 Priuses on Friday, which company officials had said was under consideration. But Toyoda said a decision had not been reached. He promised one as soon as possible.

A Prius recall would add to the automaker’s mounting troubles. Toyota has recalled more than 9 million vehicles because of problems that can cause sudden acceleration.

Two foreign media organizations, ABC News and the BBC, asked Toyoda for a direct apology in English to consumers abroad. He provided one, ending with: “I will do my best.”

It was a rare public appearance for Toyoda and just his second since the automaker’s most recent recall began Jan. 21, which Toyota says will cost the company about $2 billion.

Toyoda’s statement echoes his brief on-camera interview last week in Davos, Switzerland, where he said he was “deeply sorry” about the inconvenience caused by the recall. Since then, many observers in Japan have wondered why he had not gone a step further and made formal public comments.

Toyoda said that the company has been choosing “the person most versed with those activities to speak publicly” about them. He said that the top management has “a single voice.” But Friday night in Japan, Toyoda acknowledged, “This is a moment of crisis for Toyota” and he now wants to take the lead.

On Wednesday, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood spoke with Toyoda and was told that the company takes American safety concerns seriously and makes safety a top priority.

“I think they’re pretty close to getting it, and the reason I’m going to talk to Mr. Toyoda is I think after I talk to him, I think they’ll get it,” LaHood told reporters before making the call. “This is serious. This is very serious.”

At Friday’s news conference, Toyoda said he would head a special committee to review internal checks, analyze consumer complaints and get input from outside experts to address the company’s quality control.

The task force is meant to “verify the causes” that led to the recall and “inspect quality of design, production, sales and service,” he said.

Shinichi Sasaki, Toyota’s executive vice president, said the company would return to one of its basic principles -- “genchi genbutsu,” or “go and see for yourself.” He added that Toyota would also seek the advice of quality management professionals outside the company and establish offices to manage automotive quality control in key regions.

Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who drives a Toyota-made Lexus, strongly admonished the company, asking it to make consumers feel “safe and secure” in their cars. “This was very harsh advice for us,” Sasaki said.

Toyoda’s and Sasaki’s comments on the Prius follow those of managing officer Hiroyuki Yokoyama on Thursday. He explained that the momentary loss of braking capability involved in some Priuses would not prevent the brakes from “safely bringing the vehicle to a halt.”

Despite questions about the delay in public comments from Toyoda and the company’s response to the recalls, Sasaki said “there is no time lag in what we have learned and reported and disclosed. We will act fair and square in conceding information.”

Masters is a special correspondent for The Times.