Toyota President Faces Questions, Criticism Over Recalls on Capitol Hill

Toyota President Akio Toyoda apologized for his company’s recent safety lapses, and promised change was coming to the besieged automaker. But according to the Detroit Free Press, during his testimony yesterday before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Toyoda did not explain why the automaker took years to address thousands of sudden acceleration complaints involving its vehicles.

Since September, Toyota has recalled nearly 8 million vehicles worldwide for issues involving unintended acceleration. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has now received more than 2,000 complaints of sudden, unintended acceleration with Toyota and Lexus vehicles that involve more than 30 deaths and hundreds of accidents since 2000. Toyota has blamed the problems on faulty floor mats and defective accelerator pedals, but some believe a problem with the vehicle’s electronic throttle control system is behind the problems.

The recalls have seriously injured Toyota’s long-standing reputation for quality and reliability. Toyota has also been strongly criticized for what many see as a slow response to the unintended acceleration problem.

During his appearance on Capitol Hill yesterday, Toyoda answered many questions in Japanese through the use of translator. According to a report in the U.K. Telegraph, Toyoda declined to answer some questions, and maintained that he only became aware of the acceleration problems at the end of 2009.

Toyoda delivered a lengthy apology, and said he took “full responsibility” for Toyota’s recent woes. But the apology did little to quiet criticism of Toyoda and his company, according to the Free Press. At one point, committee member Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio pointedly asked Toyota “Where’s the remorse?”

Also testifying before the committee was Toyota’s top U.S. executive, Yoshimi Inaba. According to the Free Press, he also faced pointed questions and criticism. For example, Rep. John Mica, R-Fla, had questions regarding a July 2009 presentation in which some of Toyota’s U.S. staffers appear to brag about saving $100 million by convincing the NHTSA to limit the scope of a 2007 floor mat recall.

“How could you possibly put in writing this as ‘wins for safety’ under Toyota?” Mica asked.

Inaba responded that he didn’t recall the meeting, adding that the presentation was “inconsistent with the guiding principles of Toyota and my feelings.” Toyoda said through a translator that “the substance and the content” of the memo do not reflect Toyota’s principles,” the Free Press said.

According to the U.K. Telegraph, Toyoda that his company’s culture of safety first had become “confused.” To fix it, Toyoda said he would personally lead a new committee on global quality. Toyota is also setting up a safety advisory board to be led by two yet-to-be-named independent experts, Toyoda said.

Toyoda also addressed concerns that the electronic throttle control systems could be behind acceleration problems, saying he was “absolutely confident there is no problem with design” of the system.

This was in contrast to testimony James E. Lentz, the president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A, gave yesterday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who said the automaker still hasn’t ruled out electronics as a potential cause of sudden acceleration. Lentz said his company was awaiting results of two studies of electronics in Toyota and Lexus vehicles, and that recent floor mat and accelerator pedal fixes might “not totally” solve the problems.

According to U.K. Telegraph, one of the most astonishing moments of the hearing came when Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-District of Columbia) asked if her own Toyota Camry Hybrid might be recalled, for any reason. Inaba replied that “right now” the model was “completely safe…at the moment”.

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