WASHINGTON — Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda came to Washington to publicly apologize to Congress Wednesday for safety lapses that led to widespread recalls
Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 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 ahead of eagerly awaited testimony by the company's chief executive.
"Thousands of complaints, multiple investigations, and serial recalls are bad enough. But we now have 39 deaths attributed to sudden acceleration in Toyotas," Towns said. "To give that horrifying number perspective, there were 27 deaths attributed to the famous (Ford) Pinto exploding gas tank of the 1970s."
Toyoda, the 53-year-old scion of the Toyoto empire, readied testimony apologizing for the problem and acknowledging that the world's largest automaker grew too fast to keep up with safety controls
"We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization," he said. "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."
Towns asked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood a question on behalf all of those Toyota owners and drivers: Are the cars safe to drive?
"We have listed every Toyota that's up for recall" on the Transportation Department Web site, LaHood said. "I want anybody who has one of those cars to take it to the dealer and make sure it gets fixed."
LaHood said those vehicles on the recall list posted on his department's Website, http://www.dot.gov/, "are not safe."
David Strickland, the new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, had been on the list of witnesses but was removed right before the hearing started.
Republicans pressed LaHood about why Strickland was dropped from the hearing witness list, saying they may call him for another hearing. LaHood said Strickland has held his post for only a short time and that LaHood would answer for the safety agency.
"I am not going have our NHTSA administrator, who has been on the job 40 days, appear. I am taking responsibility for this," LaHood said.
Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce Committee requested an investigation by the Transportation Department's inspector general of NHTSA's handling of the Toyota recalls. The committee wants the IG to expand the review to include industry-wide complaints and reports collected by the agency on unintended acceleartion or brake failure, compliance with recent auto safety laws and government ethics at NHTSA.
Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the leading Republican on the House oversight panel, waved a gas pedal before LaHood and complained that Toyota knew about problems of sticking gas pedals and improperly placed floor mats years ago and made some fixes on models sold in Japan but delayed addressing the problems on other cars, including some of its most popular models sold in the U.S., until just recently.
Toyoda was to be the second witness to appear before the panel and was not in the room during opening statements by members and LaHood's testimony.
An apology may not be enough for the feisty panel of lawmakers on the committee in a year in which every one faces re-election. Nor will any culture gap; Japanese CEOs typically serve symbolic roles akin to figureheads without much power to control operations.
Toyoda's appearance comes as Japan opened its own investigation into unintended acceleration with Toyota and other vehicles in that country.
Rep. Paul Kanjorski, a member of the committee, said an apology alone will not suffice. "He's going to have to say more than that," the Pennsylvania Democrat said. "We all have questions for him."
In harmony-loving Japan, company chiefs are usually picked to cheerlead the rank and file. As the grandson of the company's founder, Toyoda was groomed to play that role — and even dubbed "the prince" of the auto empire for a time.
Still, Toyoda is familiar with the United States and its corporate culture. He received his MBA in 1982 at Babson College in Massachusetts and spent time in California as vice president of a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors Corp.
"We do not seek the spotlight," the casual Toyoda was quoted as saying in his first interview. "We try always to be low-key, not to be outspoken."
A dozen years later, the blood from dozens of claims over fatal crashes staining the family dynasty, Toyoda has no choice. A significant chunk of Washington's lobbying industry and some part of the struggling American economy hang on his appearance as it's broadcast around the world.
Japan's national Asahi newspaper said in an editorial that Toyoda's testimony "not only determines Toyota's fate, but may affect all Japanese companies and consumer confidence in their products. President Toyoda has a heavy load on his shoulders."
Toyoda, who speaks halting English, planned to appear with a translator by his side, as well as Yoshimi Inaba, president and CEO of Toyota Motor North America Inc., who is fluent in English.
Also scheduled to appear was the mother of an off-duty California highway patrolmen killed with three family members in a runaway Lexus on a San Diego highway in August.
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, in an op-ed editorial in Wednesday's editions of The Washington Post, said, "I hope Congress will resist the temptation to attack Toyota simply to advance the interests of American competitors." The U.S. government owns a majority stake in General Motors and a smaller stake in Chrysler as a result of last year's bailouts.
Toyoda's three-page statement departs somewhat from his native formality. In it, Toyoda emphasizes that he personally test-drives Toyotas. And he makes a personal appeal for credibility.
"My name is on every car," he says.
Associated Press staff writers Tom Raum, Alan Fram and Sonya Ross contributed to this report.