WASHINGTON — Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda apologized on Wednesday to Congress — and millions of American Toyota owners — for safety lapses that led to deaths and widespread recalls for accelerator and braking failures. But he disputed claims by some safety experts that the cars' electronic throttles might be at fault.
“I'm deeply sorry for any accident that Toyota drivers have experienced,” said the grandson of the founder of the world's largest automaker.
Amid a phalanx of cameras, Toyoda, dressed in a dark suit, stood before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, raised his right hand and promised to tell the truth.
House committee chairman Edolphus Towns welcomed him and thanked him for volunteering to testify.
“We're very impressed with that. It shows your commitment to safety as well,” Towns said.
Toyoda pledged his company would change the way it handles consumer complaints, including seeking greater input from drivers and outside safety experts when considering recalls. Toyota managers will also drive cars under investigation to experience potential problems first hand, he said.
He suggested his company's “priorities became confused” in its quest for growth over the past decade at the expense of safety concerns.
Toyoda told the panel he was “absolutely confident” there was no problem with the electronics of Toyota vehicles and repeated the company's stance that sudden accelerations were caused by either a sticking gas pedal or a misplaced floor mat.
Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles, mostly to fix problems with floor mats trapping gas pedals or with pedals getting stuck.
In addition, Toyoda said the company is making changes so brake pedals can override a sudden acceleration and bring a runaway vehicle to a safe stop.
Toyoda read from prepared remarks that had been released the day before.
“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. He delivered his short remarks clearly in somewhat accented English. However, when the questioning session began, he switched to Japanese with the help of a translator.
Asked by Towns if Toyota has divulged all safety information it has to U.S. officials, Toyoda said through the interpreter, “We fully share the information we have with the authorities.”
Appearing with him was Yoshimi Inaba, head of Toyota Motor North America. “We are committed not only to fixing vehicles on the road and ensuring they are safe, but to making our new vehicles better and even more reliable through a redoubled focus on putting our customers first,” Inaba said.
Moments before Toyoda's arrival, dozens of photographers sat on the floor in front of the witness table, waiting for the automotive scion. About a dozen TV cameramen were ushered in by an aide, their cameras almost colliding with each other as they rushed to get good spots. “Easy, easy! Slow it down,” someone called out.
At 2:20 p.m., a stonefaced Toyoda entered the committee room from a side doorway, trailed by the female interpreter and Inaba. He walked down two steps, past the desks of two congressmen and into the swarm of photographers amid a cascading sound of clicking camera shutters.
Some early communication problems emerged when Towns asked whether the automaker would install a brake override system on all vehicles as an additional safety mechanism.
Toyoda, through his translator, explained that there were four factors that contributed to the problems and the company was installing the override system on some vehicles.
“Is that a yes or no?” asked a puzzled Towns. “I'm trying to find out, is that a yes or no?”
Inaba stepped in and told the committee the automaker would install the brake override system on all new models by the end of the year, reiterating a previously made pledge.
Rep. Paul Kanjorksi, D-Pa. asked Toyoda whether the company treated Japanese and American consumers differently, saying he wanted “to hear in my own mind that there hasn't been this difference between the home market and the American market.”
Toyoda said the automakers provided “the same degree of care to customers in the United States and the world over.”