Toyota chief blasted by lawmakers despite apology

By The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Under blistering criticism, Toyota President Akio Toyoda personally and repeatedly apologized to Congress and millions of anxious American car-owners Wednesday for deadly defects in popular models produced by his Japanese company. But angry lawmakers forcefully declared it was hardly enough.

“Where is the remorse?” scolded Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio. And Republican John Mica of Florida held aloft what he called an “absolutely appalling” Toyota report bragging of defusing a safety investigation.

Of Toyoda’s apology, Kaptur said, “I do not think it reflects significant remorse for those who have died.” Federal safety officials have received reports linking 34 deaths in the United States to safety defects in Toyota cars and trucks over the past decade.

“I extend my sincerest condolences to them from the bottom of my heart,” responded Toyoda, grandson of the founder of the world’s largest auto company. “I’m deeply sorry for any accident that Toyota drivers have experienced.”

But what’s most important to American drivers — and what lawmakers pressed Toyoda and a top aide to provide — was a better explanation for slow actions to deal with the defects and believable assurances the problems that led to sudden unintended accelerations will be fixed. Toyoda said those changes are being made nearly around the clock, but he repeated the company’s insistence that there is no link to the cars’ electronic systems.

Many drivers filing complaints with Toyota and the government say their acceleration problems had nothing to do with floor mat interference or sticky gas pedals — the culprits the company is pointing to. Outside experts have suggested electronic problems.

Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles, more than 6 million of them in the United States, mostly to fix problems with floor mats trapping gas pedals or with pedals getting stuck. Toyoda said great strides were being taken by his company to put “safety first” and it was working hard to refit the millions of cars and trucks that have been recalled.

The company also said Wednesday it will offer free at-home pickup of vehicles covered by the national safety recall, pay for customers’ out-of-pocket transportation costs and provide drivers free rental cars during repairs. The deal was initially announced as part of an agreement between Toyota and New York state.

Toyoda also said that new systems to allow brakes to override gas pedals were being put on new models.

“Notwithstanding that, accidents actually happen,” he told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the second of three congressional panels examining Toyota’s troubles.

Toyoda, 53, remained calm when some Democratic and Republican lawmakers scolded the company for the recalls and safety problems.

He stood firm on many points, including saying he was “absolutely confident” the causes of runaway acceleration were mechanical, and not a design flaw in the company’s electronic throttle control system. Many safety experts and lawmakers have suggested that the electronics systems should not be ruled out.

Rep. Mica said it was an embarrassing day not only for Toyota but for U.S. safety regulators, whom a number of lawmakers said should have acted more quickly and forcefully.

Mica held up a copy of a July 2009 internal Toyota document boasting of a “win” for Toyota in striking a deal with the U.S. government for a more limited recall involving floor mats. The document said the agreement saved the company $100 million.

The internal presentation was addressed to Yoshimi Inaba, chief of Toyota Motor North America, who sat next to Toyoda at the witness table.

“It is inconsistent with the guiding principles of Toyota,” Inaba told Mica.

Toyoda’s testimony got off to an agreeable start, as he promised to tell the truth and gave an opening statement in clear, if heavily accented, English.

“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,” he said.

Committee members praised him for voluntarily venturing onto a potential minefield. Under intensifying grilling, Toyoda chose to answer all questions in Japanese. He brought a translator with him.

Although he answered every question put to him, many of the answers repeated company talking points. He did not offer any new company concessions beyond a general promise to be more vigilant, open in communications and responsive to calls for change.

Toyoda testified for a little over three hours.

Later, Toyoda met with a more receptive audience: a group of U.S. Toyota dealers who have been in town lobbying members of Congress. “Words cannot express my gratitude,” he said in English. “We need to rethink everything about our operation.”

Paul Atkinson, a Houston-area Toyota dealer who spoke on behalf of other dealers, told Toyoda that “we thoroughly apologize for what happened today.”

Jack Taylor, an Alexandria, Va., Toyota dealer, said he thought some of the lawmakers at the hearing “were very rude,” adding he’s getting 100 customers a day for the recall.

“I think they were a little rough,” agreed another dealer, Troy Duhon, who employs 180 people at Toyota dealerships in New Orleans and Poway, Calif. He said new car sales at his business were down 15 percent compared with last year.

Shares of Toyota traded on the New York Stock Exchange rose steadily Wednesday as Toyoda testified, closing up 4 percent.

At the hearing, Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., spoke of “injuries and the damages suffered by innocent Americans … who like myself have grown up in an atmosphere that we had a great deal of faith in something that was stamped ‘Made in Japan.’”

“It was of the highest reliability. You injured that thought process in the American public, and you will be called upon in our system to pay compensation for that,” Kanjorski said.

And Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., told the Toyota chief, “It’s one thing to say you’re sorry. It’s another when it seems as if time after time there are pronouncements that problems are being addressed and over and over again it seems like they’re not being addressed.”

He asked why Americans “should pay hard-earned money on a Toyota in hard economic times.”

“I sincerely regret that some people actually encountered accidents in their vehicles,” said Toyoda.

In one pointed exchange, Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., asked Toyoda whether U.S. regulators should require automakers to report all defects throughout the globe. When Toyoda gave a lengthy response through his translator, promising to “minimize those troubles,” Bilbray became flustered.

“In all fairness, I’d just like a yes or no,” Bilbray said, pointing his finger at Toyoda. Toyoda quickly said through the translator that the company would “extend full cooperation.” Bilbray shot back, “We’ll take that as a yes.”

Committee members did not spare federal safety regulators from their withering criticism.

Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., the committee chairman, said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 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.

Towns asked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who preceded Toyoda in the witness chair, a question on behalf all of Toyota owners and drivers: Are the cars safe to drive?

“We have listed every Toyota that’s up for recall,” 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 the recalled vehicles posted on his department’s Web site, http://www.dot.gov, “are not safe.”

Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the leading Republican on the 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.

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Associated Press writers Laurie Kellman, Stephen Manning, Alan Fram, Sonya Ross and Christine Simmons contributed to this report.