ARLINGTON, Va. (AdAge.com) -- Top officials at Toyota tried mightily to convince Congress today that their company is now committed to reforming itself and fulfilling its marketing mission to put customers first. But instead they often seemed to raise deeper doubts about the company's willingness to adequately deal with problems with unintended acceleration that have allegedly led to 34 deaths in the U.S.
"I love cars as much as anyone, and I love Toyota as much as anyone," Toyota Motor Corp. President-CEO Akio Toyoda told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee today. The committee was the second to hold hearings on Toyota in as many days. Acknowledging customer fears about the safety of their cars, Mr. Toyoda said he takes "full responsibility for that."
But Toyota's reputation for sterling quality and safety has been severely harmed, Rep. Elijah Commings, D-Md., told the Toyota officials at the hearing. "It's one thing to say you're sorry. It's another thing when it seems as if time after time there are announcements that problems are being addressed and over and over again they seem like they're not being addressed," he said. He also questioned why customers should trust Toyota again. "It seems as if there is no end to this series of promises and then promises then seem to come short of reaching the goal of safety."
Despite assurances of new procedures to investigate customer complaints more quickly with the creation of a "SWAT" team, Mr. Toyoda and Yoshimi Inaba, president-CEO of Toyota Motor North America, who also testified before the committee, were unable to answer questions of why it has taken Toyota so long to begin full investigations of the sudden acceleration problem.
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The company's current problems stem from the fact that it has grown too fast, Mr. Toyoda said. "I fear the pace at which we have grown may have been too quick," he said. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, disagreed. "The problem is not that you were moving too fast, but you were moving too slow," the congressman said.
Treating the two Toyota executives with deference they rarely give to American business people accused of producing dangerous products, the lawmakers attempted to determine when the company first learned of the acceleration problems. In answer to a question by Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., Mr. Toyoda said complaints were handled by the company's Division of Quality Assurance and that he was unaware of the substance of meetings last December between that division and officials of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Japan.
"I certainly know that there was a meeting with these representatives but I do not know the content of that meeting," Mr. Toyoda said, speaking through an interpreter.
"Given your position in the company and your family's association with the company, that would constitute extraordinary compartmentalization," Mr. Connolly said. Mr. Toyoda is a descendant of the founder of Toyota.
Members of the congressional panel tried to elicit responses from Mr. Inada about memos released by the committee in which company officials appear to be bragging about their ability to limit investigations by NHTSA officials. "Secured safety rulemaking favorable to Toyota," stated one memo dated July 6, 2009.
"I don't recall the meeting in any depth, and I had no idea about this recall process," Mr. Inada said, explaining that he only taken over the U.S. within the past year.
Mr. Toyoda also continued to maintain that company engineers have not been able to duplicate the unintended acceleration reported.
But the company is putting new brake override systems on all models coming off its line this year, and it will do that with most of the approximately 6 million cars that have been recalled in the U.S., Mr. Inada said.
Earlier, the committee heard from a feisty and emphatic Ray LaHood, secretary of the Department of Transportation, who repeatedly insisted that NHTSA officials had not become a lap dog for the industry. "Safety is our No. 1 priority," Mr. LaHood told the committee.