Toyota president says he will testify before House committee about recalls next week

By Ken Thomas, AP
Thursday, February 18, 2010

Toyota president agrees to testify before Congress

TOKYO — Toyota president Akio Toyoda says he plans to seek the understanding of American customers and lawmakers when he appears before a congressional hearing next week in Washington on the automaker’s massive recalls.

He will be meeting face-to-face with U.S. lawmakers after enduring criticism that he had responded too slowly to the company’s safety crisis.

“I will be happy to attend. I will speak with full sincerity,” Toyoda told reporters Friday in Nagoya, near where the company is headquartered.

“I am hoping our commitment to the United States and our customers will be understood,” said Toyoda, grandson of the company’s founder.

Toyoda said he will cooperate with U.S. regulators and work toward recovering consumer faith tattered by recalls of over 8 million vehicles worldwide, including top-selling models like the Corolla, the Camry and the Prius hybrid.

Earlier this week, he said he did not plan to attend the hearings unless invited. That decision drew heated criticism in the U.S. But Toyoda had said he was open to going, and on Thursday, he agreed to after being formally invited by the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Rep. Edolphus Towns, a Democrat from New York.

“It was not just up to me to decide,” Toyoda told reporters in televised remarks.

The decision won accolades from Japanese officials.

Japan’s transport minister, Seiji Maehara, said he welcomed Toyoda’s decision. Maehara has urged Toyota to heed the concerns of its customers, and he said it was important for the company to explain the safety lapses.

Industry minister Masayuki Naoshima emphasized the need to prevent the recalls from fueling political friction between Japan and the U.S.

“Whether speaking before Congress or at a press conference, (Toyota can better) explain to the U.S. public, clarify its handling of the troubles and regain consumer confidence,” Kyodo News agency cited Naoshima as saying.

Toyoda’s decision to attend followed news of a fresh investigation into Corolla compacts over potential steering problems. Toyota has faced an expanding safety crisis during the past four months with recalls over sticking gas pedals, accelerators getting jammed in floor mats and momentarily unresponsive brakes.

In both Japan and in the United States, Toyota has been chastised for a tepid response to the recalls. Toyoda was accused of being largely invisible initially as the recalls escalated. But he has held three news conferences in recent weeks, apologizing repeatedly for the safety problems and promising changes.

Toyoda earlier had planned a U.S. visit, mainly to speak with American workers and dealers, though he said details of his trip were being worked out and a date hadn’t been set. The company had planned to send North America chief executive Yoshi Inaba to the hearings.

The desire to avoid the spotlight, given the criticism Toyota is facing, was understandable, said some analysts, while others contend that only someone from Toyota headquarters could fully answer questions over the design and engineering of the equipment requiring fixes.

“Obviously, the hearing will be nasty. It’s a political showplace for those congressmen so I’m sure you are going to see all sorts of unfriendly questions,” said Koji Endo, managing director at Advanced Research Japan.

Toyoda’s schedule for traveling to the United States was not immediately available.

Democratic Rep. Edolphus Towns, the committee chairman, told Toyoda in his invitation that motorists were “unsure as to what exactly the problem is, whether it is safe to drive their cars, or what they should do about it.” Towns and the committee’s top Republican, Rep. Darrell Issa, said later that Toyoda’s testimony “will be helpful in understanding the actions Toyota is taking to ensure the safety of American drivers.”

Towns said late Thursday that Toyoda would be joined by Inaba and Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA.

The Transportation Department’s preliminary investigation into steering problems at highway speeds will encompass 487,000 Toyota Corolla and Corolla Matrix compacts from the 2009-2010 model years. The government has received 168 complaints and reports of 11 injuries and eight crashes on the Corolla and Matrix compacts with electric power steering.

Toyota has said it is looking into complaints of power steering difficulties with the vehicle and considering a recall as one option.

Reports of deaths in the U.S. connected to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles have surged in recent weeks, with the toll of deaths allegedly attributed to the problem reaching 34 since 2000, according to new consumer data gathered by the government.

Toyoda is the latest embattled auto executive to testify before Congress, more than a year after the leaders of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford sought support for the U.S. auto industry and were scolded for traveling to the hearings in private jets. About a decade ago, the leaders of Ford and tire maker Bridgestone/Firestone were grilled by Congress after crashes involving exploding tires led to more than 250 traffic deaths.

By issuing the invitation, the committee had essentially forced Toyoda to testify or face a subpoena. Issa, the committee’s top Republican, had urged Toyoda to meet with lawmakers and said if necessary, the committee should compel the executive’s testimony.

Toyota faces questions from three committees in Congress. The House Energy and Commerce Committee moved its scheduled hearing up to Feb. 23, one day ahead of the Oversight Committee meeting. The energy panel has invited Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, and David Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to testify. A Senate hearing, chaired by West Virginia Sen. Jay Rockefeller, is planned for March 2.

Congressional investigators and the Transportation Department have demanded documents related to the Toyota recalls, seeking information on how long the automaker knew of safety defects before taking action.

Toyota has promised an outside review of company operations, better handling of customer complaints and improved communication with federal officials. The company has provided about 50,000 pages of documents to congressional investigators and is answering questions from staff members, said Josephine Cooper, Toyota’s group vice president for public policy and government and industry affairs.

Toyoda’s testimony will give the company a prime chance to take responsibility for the problems.

“He has to be extremely well-prepared to take responsibility. He should take the full force of the most hostile criticisms he gets and welcome them,” said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management.

Associated Press writers Ken Thomas in Washington and Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed to this report.

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