By The Associated Pres
TOKYO – Toyota’s president emerged from seclusion Friday to apologize and address criticism that the automaker mishandled a crisis over sticking gas pedals. Yet he stopped short of ordering a recall for the company’s iconic Prius hybrid for braking problems.
Akio Toyoda, appointed to the top job at Toyota Motor Corp. last June, promised to beef up quality control, saying, “We are facing a crisis.”
Toyoda, grandson of the company’s founder, said he personally would head a special committee to review checks within the company, go over consumer complaints and listen to outside experts to come up with a fix.
“I apologize from the bottom of my heart for all the concern that we have given to so many customers,” said Toyoda, speaking at his first news conference since the Jan. 21 global recall of 4.5 million vehicles.
Toyota’s failure to stem its widening safety crisis has stunned consumers and experts who’d come to expect only streamlined efficiency from a company at the pinnacle of the global auto industry.
“Toyota needs to be more assertive in terms of providing consumers comfort that the immediate problem is being addressed … and that it can deal with these crises,” said Sherman Abe, a business professor at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.
Toyoda told the hastily called news conference that the company had not decided what to do about problems in the braking system of the Prius gas-electric hybrid. The high-mileage, low-pollution car is a leader in its field and a symbol of Toyota technology
Toyoda and Shinichi Sasaki, who oversees quality control, offered no new explanations for the braking problem.
Prius drivers in Japan and the U.S. have complained of a short delay before the brakes kick in – a flaw Toyota says can be fixed with a software programming change.
The lag occurs as the car is switching between brakes for the gas engine and the electric motor – a process that is key to the hybrid’s increased mileage.
Toyota spokesman Mike Michels said Friday the company continues to weigh options on how to handle repair of the problem, and it is communicating with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Among the options are a service campaign in which Toyota would notify owners to bring their cars in for repairs, or a full-fledged safety recall. Michels said he could not say when Toyota would make a decision.
The automaker said it fixed the programming glitch in Prius models that went on sale since last month, but has done nothing on 270,000 Prius cars sold last year in Japan and the U.S.
The lack of action has raised questions about whether there is a bigger problem.
Sasaki denied any cover up.
“We have nothing to hide. We have just been investigating,” he said.
Sasaki said complaints were climbing by the day. The company was checking into them, one by one, and test-driving customer’s cars that had developed problems, he said.
But he appeared to view the problem as minor, occurring only at slow speeds.
“We don’t see it as critical because if you push on it a bit, then the car will stop,” he said of the brake pedal.
In the past, the world’s No. 1 automaker has move quickly to address problems and the handling of its most recent problems has experts puzzled.
“There’s a sharp contrast with previous times in terms of handling these kinds of situations,” said Koji Endo, managing director of Advanced Research Japan. “I really don’t know why – if it was the change in management or if the PR office was responsible or what.”
Some experts speculated a degree of arrogance or corporate insularity may have clouded the company’s judgment this time around.
“Toyota is the top of the totem pole,” said Kenneth Grossberg, a marketing professor at Waseda University in Tokyo. “They don’t have to learn from anyone else.”