WASHINGTON — Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda apologized personally and repeatedly Wednesday to the United States and millions of American Toyota owners for safety lapses that have led to deaths and widespread recalls. Unimpressed lawmakers blistered the world’s largest automaker with accusations of greed and insensitivity.
“I’m deeply sorry for any accident that Toyota drivers have experienced,” the grandson of the founder of the Japanese auto giant told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He suggested his company’s “priorities became confused” in a quest for growth over the past decade at the expense of safety concerns.
Lawmakers read to him account after account of American customers experiencing unintended acceleration in their Toyotas and being blamed or ignored by the company.
“I hope that moving forward you never again use the excuse that it was driver error,” Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., told Toyoda.
“I will make sure that we will never, ever blame the customers going forward,” he responded through a translator.
Toyoda told the panel he was “absolutely confident” there was no problem with the electronics of Toyota vehicles and repeated the company’s stance that sudden accelerations were caused by either a sticking gas pedal or a misplaced floor mat. Some outside experts have suggested electronics may be at the root of the problems.
Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles, mostly to fix problems with floor mats trapping gas pedals or with pedals getting stuck.
In addition, Toyoda said the company is making changes so brake pedals can override a sudden acceleration and bring a runaway vehicle to a safe stop.
The company 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 state.
After an exchange of pleasantries that included praise from committee members for his willingness to step into a lion’s den, Toyoda and a top deputy drew heavy fire from both Democrats and Republicans for the company’s slowness in dealing with safety defects in its autos and trucks that led to deaths and eventually the massive recalls.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said it was a “very embarrassing day” for Toyota and for U.S. highway safety regulators. He said he was equally embarrassed for U.S. Toyota dealers and for the thousands of hardworking Americans in “Toyota plants across the country.”
Mica held aloft a copy of a July 2009 internal Toyota document boasting of a “win” for Toyota in striking a deal with the U.S. government for a more limited recall involving floor mats. The document said the agreement saved the company $100 million.
Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., cited “injuries and the damages suffered by innocent Americans … who like myself have grown up in an atmosphere that we had a great deal of faith in something that was stamped ’Made in Japan.”’
“It was of the highest reliability. You injured that thought process in the American public and you will be called upon in our system to pay compensation for that,” Kanjorski said.
And Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., told the Toyota chief, “It’s one thing to say you’re sorry. It’s another when it seems as if time after time there are pronouncements that problems are being addressed and over and over again it seems like they’re not being addressed.”
He asked why Americans “should pay hard-earned money on a Toyota in hard economic times?”
“I sincerely regret that some people actually encountered accidents in their vehicles,” said Toyoda, who gave his opening remarks in heavily accented English but chose to respond to questions in Japanese with a translator.
It wasn’t good enough for some.
“Where is the remorse?” asked Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio.
Toyoda apologized again.
He said that great strides had been taken by his company to put “safety first. Notwithstanding that, accidents actually happen,” he said.
House committee chairman Edolphus Towns welcomed Toyoda and thanked him for volunteering to testify. “We’re very impressed with that. It shows your commitment to safety as well,” Towns said.
Toyoda pledged his company would change the way it handles consumer complaints, including seeking greater input from drivers and outside safety experts when considering recalls. Toyota managers will also drive cars under investigation to experience potential problems first hand, he said.
Toyoda read from prepared remarks that had been released the day before.
“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 said. He delivered his short remarks clearly in English. However, when the questioning session began, he switched to Japanese with the help of the translator.