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Toyoda’s testimony

Automaker’s CEO apologizes on Capitol Hill, but lawmakers seem unimpressed

By Tom Raum and Ken Thomas
Associated Press / February 25, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Under blistering criticism, Toyota chief Akio Toyoda personally and repeatedly apologized to Congress and millions of anxious American car owners yesterday 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 Representative Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat.

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 is 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 that 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 analysts 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 that his company was taking great strides to put safety first, and that it was working hard to refit the millions of cars and trucks that have been recalled.

Toyoda also said that 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 specialists and lawmakers have suggested that the electronics systems should not be ruled out.

Mica said it was an embarrassing day not only for Toyota but for US 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 US government for a more limited recall involving floor mats. The document said the agreement saved the company $100 million.

The internal document 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,’’ he said. “You have my personal commitment that Toyota will work vigorously and unceasingly to restore the trust of our customers.’’

Although he answered every question put to him, 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.