Tearful Toyota boss says sorry

2010-02-25 12:21

Washington - A tearful Toyota president Akio Toyoda formally apologised for deadly auto defects that have driven the world's top carmaker into crisis, and vowed to rebuild shattered global faith in the firm.

"I am deeply sorry," Toyoda on Wednesday contritely told angry US lawmakers in English at the outset of more than three hours of tough questioning sure to shape the fate of the global empire his grandfather founded 70 years ago.

After stoically facing the grilling from lawmakers, Toyoda showed the stress of the crisis when addressing a handful of the 178 000 people who the firm says are linked to Toyota and its dealerships across North America.

"At the hearing, I was not alone, you and your colleagues across America, around the world, were there with me," Toyoda told them, his voice straining with emotion.

"Words cannot express my gratitude," he said struggling to keep his composure.

Personal connection

Toyota has said it will now overhaul its quality control measures, placing greater weight on views of consumers and non-Japanese experts than in the past, creating a new US safety post, and requiring its executives to do test drives, he said.

And it will, before the end of 2010, install a system in all new North American vehicles that allows a brake signal to the engine to override an accelerator signal, said a top Toyoda deputy, Yoshimi Inaba.

Toyoda emphasised his personal connection to overhauling the Japanese auto giant, telling the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee: "My name is on every car."

"You have my personal commitment that Toyota will work vigorously and unceasingly to restore the trust of our customers," said the executive, whose testimony was carried live on Japanese television.

Three US congressional panels have launched investigations into incidents of sudden unintended acceleration blamed for nearly 40 US deaths and tied to the recall of some eight million Toyota vehicles worldwide.

Lawmakers and some drivers who survived Toyota crashes have charged the auto giant with ignoring complaints and incorrectly blaming accidents on floor mats that jam accelerators or on sticky pedals, while ignoring possible electronic problems.

Toyoda, who switched to Japanese to answer lawmakers' questions and sat mostly stone-faced through the ordeal, said through an interpreter he was "absolutely confident" electronics were not the root of the problem.

Regain trust

Democratic Representative Marcy Kaptur denounced what she called "sudden-death acceleration" and demanded: "Where's the remorse?"

"To some degree it seems like we're having a hanging before the trial," said Republican Representative Mark Souder, who added "I'm not saying you're not guilty" but that "there's a lot yet to be decided".

Representatives sharply criticised US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) regulators, saying they had reacted sluggishly to the problem despite nearly 1 000 complaints.

Highlighting the high stakes of Toyoda's appearance, Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said after the grilling that he expected the firm "to pay full attention to safety and to keep improving what must be improved because it concerns people's lives".

The Japanese premier earlier told reporters in Tokyo that Toyota would regain trust, "without making this issue a major economic problem between Japan and the United States".

US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told angry lawmakers Toyoda's appearance was a "game-changer" that showed the world number one automaker was no longer "safety deaf" to overseas complaints and concerns.

Toyoda, 53, blamed a "too quick" expansion by Toyota, which dethroned General Motors in 2008 as the world's top automaker, for slipping safety standards and said he felt the crisis personally.

Failed taxpayers

"For me, when the cars are damaged, it is as though I am as well. I, more than anyone, wish for Toyota's cars to be safe and for our customers to feel safe," he said.

In Japan, Transport Minister Seiji Maehara announced a probe of Toyota's issues with the sudden spikes in speed but stressed that "Toyota does not receive more complaints than other carmakers", considering its market share.

LaHood denied Toyota was being unfairly targeted and defended the NHTSA, saying he hoped to expand its staff and vowing "We will not sleep" until all Toyota cars and trucks in the US are safe.

Asked whether Toyota's vehicles were now safe, LaHood bluntly said any car or truck listed on his department's website as under recall was "not safe" until brought in for necessary fixes.

But the committee's chair, Democratic Representative Edolphus Towns, charged: "NHTSA failed the taxpayers and Toyota failed their customers."

Towns related the chilling tale of an August 2009 Toyota Lexus crash that claimed the lives of California Highway Patrol officer Mark Saylor, his wife, their 13-year-old daughter, and his brother-in-law in August 2009.

As the luxury car raced out of control, the panicked brother-in-law called police, and "yelled over the phone 'Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on' and 'pray, pray.' And those were his last words," said Towns.