February 25, 2010 in Nation/World

Toyota chief apologizes

But Toyoda insists electronics not cause of acceleration problem
Tom Raum And Ken Thomas Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda testifies on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – Under blistering criticism, Toyota President Akio Toyoda personally and repeatedly apologized to Congress and millions of anxious American car owners Wednesday for deadly defects in popular models produced by his Japanese company. But angry lawmakers forcefully declared it was hardly enough.

“Where is the remorse?” scolded Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio. And Republican John Mica of Florida held aloft what he called an “absolutely appalling” Toyota report bragging of defusing a safety investigation.

Of Toyoda’s apology, Kaptur said, “I do not think it reflects significant remorse for those who have died.” Federal safety officials have received reports linking 34 deaths in the United States to safety defects in Toyota cars and trucks over the past decade.

“I extend my sincerest condolences to them from the bottom of my heart,” responded Toyoda, grandson of the founder of the auto company. “I’m deeply sorry for any accident that Toyota drivers have experienced.”

But what’s most important to American drivers – and what lawmakers pressed Toyoda and a top aide to provide – was a better explanation for slow actions to deal with the defects and believable assurances the problems that led to sudden unintended accelerations will be fixed. Toyoda said those changes are being made nearly around the clock, but he repeated the company’s insistence that there is no link to the cars’ electronic systems.

Many drivers filing complaints with Toyota and the government say their acceleration problems had nothing to do with floor mat interference or sticky gas pedals – the culprits the company is pointing to. Outside experts have suggested electronic problems.

Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles, more than 6 million of them in the United States, mostly to fix problems with floor mats trapping gas pedals or with pedals getting stuck. Toyoda said great strides were being taken by his company to put “safety first” and it was working hard to refit the millions of cars and trucks that have been recalled.

The company also 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 was initially announced as part of an agreement between Toyota and New York state.

Toyoda also said that new systems to allow brakes to override gas pedals were being put on new models.

“Notwithstanding that, accidents actually happen,” he told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the second of three congressional panels examining Toyota’s troubles.

Toyoda, 53, remained calm when some Democratic and Republican lawmakers scolded the company for the recalls and safety problems.

He stood firm on many points, including saying he was “absolutely confident” the causes of runaway acceleration were mechanical, and not a design flaw in the company’s electronic throttle control system. Many safety experts and lawmakers have suggested that the electronics systems should not be ruled out.

Mica said it was an embarrassing day not only for Toyota but for U.S. safety regulators, whom a number of lawmakers said should have acted more quickly and forcefully.

Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., the committee chairman, said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration failed to follow through aggressively on thousands of complaints dating back a decade about sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

NHTSA , which is part of the Transportation Department, “failed the taxpayers and Toyota failed their customers,” Towns declared.

Towns asked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who preceded Toyoda in the witness chair, a question on behalf of all of Toyota owners and drivers: Are the cars safe to drive?

“We have listed every Toyota that’s up for recall,” LaHood said. “I want anybody who has one of those cars to take it to the dealer and make sure it gets fixed.”

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