Toyota president apologizes at House hearing

Declaring that he and his company were "not perfect," the president of Toyota Motor Corp. apologized Wednesday for the safety concerns of customers and accidents -- specifically a horrific California crash last summer -- caused by sudden acceleration in the automaker's vehicles.

"Toyota has, for the past few years, been expanding its business rapidly. Quite frankly, I fear the pace at which we have grown may have been too quick," Akio Toyoda, the grandson of the company's founder, told a congressional committee.

Somber-faced and speaking in halting English, Toyoda read from a 2 1/4 -page prepared statement. His three-hour testimony came after dozens of cameras recorded him standing and raising his right hand to be sworn in before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. It was the second day of congressional hearings about the automaker's safety problems.

"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," he continued. "I regret that this has resulted in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today, and I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced."

Toyoda extended condolences to the family of off-duty California Highway Patrol Officer Mark Saylor, who was killed along with three members of his family in August in an accident in suburban San Diego County. The accident, in a Toyota-made Lexus, helped trigger Toyota's massive recalls to address unintended acceleration.

"I would like to send my prayers again, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again," Toyoda said.

After he testified, Fe Niosco Lastrella of Vallejo, Calif., the mother of two of the victims in the crash, told the committee that federal regulators should conduct a thorough investigation of Toyota's safety issues.

"We don't want another family to suffer like we are suffering," she said, fighting back tears.

Toyoda was joined by Yoshimi Inaba, the president and chief executive of Toyota Motor North America, Inc., who agreed to extend nationwide a commitment he made to the New York attorney general to have recalled vehicles picked up at the homes of owners who are afraid to drive them. Under the New York agreement, Toyota owners also will be given a free loaner vehicle until the repairs are completed.

Inaba said the company was cooperating fully with U.S. regulators investigating the safety problems. Toyoda promised to improve communications with regulators. And he reiterated his plan to develop a special committee on global quality, which he personally will head, that will take into account consumer perspectives on safety issues.

Committee Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) praised Toyoda for voluntarily agreeing to travel from Japan to testify. But Toyoda, who used a translator to answer questions, soon came under fire.

In questioning the executive through a translator, Towns expressed frustration when he could not get a straight answer about why the company was not offering to install a brake-override system in all of its existing vehicles.

After a lengthy answer from Toyoda, Towns asked, "Is that a yes or no? That's what I'm trying to get to."

Inaba stepped in to explain that the new override system, which allows a driver to stop runaway acceleration by stepping on the brake, would be installed in all new North American vehicles produced this year and 72% of the recalled vehicles. The rest are older vehicles that are not possible to retrofit, Inaba said.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said it was difficult for customers to regain trust in Toyota when new safety issues keep arising.

"The problem is it's one thing to say you're sorry, it's another thing when it seems as if time after time there are pronouncements that problems are being addressed and over and over again they seem like they're not being addressed," Cummings said.

Toyoda said he regretted accidents caused by the safety issues, but said thorough testing by the company had found no further problems in the electronic system that controls vehicle acceleration. Inaba said "my level of confidence is 100%" that the problems were not related to the electronic throttle control.

But the testimony didn't satisfy some lawmakers, who chastised the executives for the safety problems. Rep. John R. Mica (R-Fla.) told Toyoda flatly, "I'm embarrassed for you, sir." Mica said he was "appalled" at an internal Toyota document from July that bragged that the company's Washington office had saved hundreds of millions of dollars by persuading federal officials to limit or avoid safety recalls or rules.

Inaba said he did not recall the memo and that it was "inconsistent with the guiding principle of Toyota."

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) said Toyoda did not show enough remorse for the accidents. Holding up a copy of a 2003 book about the company, "The Toyota Way," she asked him, "Mr. Toyoda, how did Toyota lose its way?"

Toyoda said he tried to "convey my sincere feelings," and promised to improve the company.

"To become a better carmaker and a more transparent carmaker I think is my role as president," he said.

Toyoda testified after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood declared that millions of Toyota vehicles being recalled are unsafe to drive. "We've determined they're not safe," he said.

LaHood referred people to a list of Toyota models under recall on the Department of Transportation website and urged drivers of any such vehicle "to take it to a dealer and make sure it gets fixed."

Towns charged Wednesday that the automaker "was at times more concerned with profit than customer safety."

Towns also criticized the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, saying that "there is a serious question of whether NHTSA used all of its regulatory tools to investigate" the problems of sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

"NHTSA failed the taxpayers and Toyota failed their customers," Towns said. Toyota has issued nearly 10 million recall notices worldwide since September for problems related to unintended acceleration, with about 2 million vehicles affected by more than one recall.

Referring to the Saylor accident, Towns said, "We now know that the terrifying deaths of this family were not caused by a freak accident. It turns out that people from all over the country had been complaining about sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles. And what people are wondering is, 'Will I be next?' "

Noting that 39 deaths attributed to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles were more than the 27 deaths attributed to the infamous gas tank explosions in the Ford Pinto in the 1970s, Towns asked bluntly: "Is it safe to drive these cars?"

LaHood said it was not safe to drive vehicles that have been recalled. But he defended NHTSA, saying it took seriously every one of the 30,000 complaints it received annually. As for the death toll, NHTSA this month confirmed only 34 deaths.

"We haven't been sitting around on our hands," LaHood said. "When people complain, we investigate. When there needs to be a recall, we do it."

But later in the hearing, LaHood acknowledged that the agency "maybe" should have acted more "expeditiously."

LaHood said he would have to get back to the committee on some detailed questions, such as why it took NHTSA so long to act given the number of complaints about sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

A person who could answer such questions, NHTSA Director David Strickland, who had been listed as a witness by the committee for several days, surprisingly did not testify.

"Mr. Strickland is not testifying per the request of Mr. LaHood," said committee spokeswoman Jenny Thalheimer Rosenberg. LaHood told the committee he wanted to answer all the questions because Strickland has been head of NHTSA for only six weeks. Strickland sat behind LaHood at the hearing and "if there is a question with regard to NHTSA that Mr. LaHood cannot answer, Mr. Strickland will have an opportunity to answer the question," she said.

But LaHood did not defer to Strickland on specific questions about NHTSA's handling of complaints about Toyota's vehicles.

"I'm taking responsibility for this. . . . And I'm going to be accountable," LaHood said when asked by Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) why Strickland was not testifying. "That's my job. I'm not going to duck it and I'm not going to give it to somebody who's only been on the job for 40 days."

Towns also criticized Toyota for its slow response to safety concerns about its popular Prius hybrid, which the company began recalling this month for brake problems, and for similar problems in some Camry sedans.

"In short, if the Camry and the Prius were airplanes, they would be grounded."

Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.) warned that Toyota's problem might be an electronics issue and that vehicles being recalled for floor mat and sticky accelerator pedal problems might still be dangerous.

"There very well could be a serious software problem here and . . . we're sending people out in dangerous automobiles," he said.

LaHood said NHTSA was studying the possibility of an electronics issue. In testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday, James E. Lentz, Toyota's top U.S. sales executive, said the company could not rule out electronics as a cause of sudden unintended acceleration.

Three Republicans on the committee suggested NHTSA was being tougher on Toyota than on General Motors because the government now owns a 60% stake in that company. But LaHood said the agency treated all automakers equally.

LaHood said he would consider mandating that all vehicles contain event data recorders, devices similar to the "black boxes" on airplanes, which record information about the vehicle five seconds before an accident and one second afterward. Many vehicles already contain them, although Toyota's recorders have encrypted information that only the company can read.

LaHood said he would support prohibiting such encrypted data on those recorders.

jim.puzzanghera@latimes.com

michael.muskal@latimes.com

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