CEO promises Toyota will ‘advance safety’
Executive meets transport official
WASHINGTON - Toyota’s chief executive visited the assembly line at Toyota’s largest North American manufacturing plant yesterday and met with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, repeating pledges he made to Congress this week to improve safety efforts.
Akio Toyoda told LaHood that the world’s top automaker would “advance safety to the next level’’ as it tries to restore customer faith in its cars and trucks that has been badly damaged by the recall of 8.5 million vehicles over safety concerns. He later toured Toyota’s plant in Kentucky and said the company was “at a crossroads.’’
“We need to rethink everything about our operations,’’ he told about 100 workers.
The recall has damaged Toyota’s reputation and the company is facing legal and public relations problems on several fronts: a criminal investigation by federal prosecutors in New York; a probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission; and anger by US dealerships in line to repair potentially millions of recalled vehicles.
Company lawyers are bracing for large numbers of death and injury lawsuits. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee plans a hearing Tuesday and has asked LaHood, federal highway safety chief David Strickland, and two Toyota executives - Toyota’s North American president, Yoshi Inaba, and quality control official Shinichi Sasaki - to testify.
Transportation officials said Toyoda’s meeting with LaHood lasted about 30 minutes and focused on the importance of safety and protecting consumers. Toyoda “promised to take the initiative to advance safety to the next level,’’ according to a Toyota statement.
Back-to-back congressional hearings this week failed to clear up Toyota’s slow actions in dealing with the defects and provide guarantees that the problems that led to sudden, unintended accelerations will be fixed. Some lawmakers tore into Toyoda, the grandson of the company’s founder, over the automaker’s safety record.
At the hearings, Toyoda repeated the company’s insistence that there was no link between the problems and the cars’ electronic systems. Many safety experts doubt that Toyota’s claims that floor mat interference or sticky gas pedals are the culprits, saying the electronics need more investigation.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is seeking records on Toyota’s recalls and is conducting its own review on whether electronics were behind the vehicle defects. NHTSA also continues to look into steering complaints from drivers of the popular Corolla model.
Toyota said it has fixed about 800,000 of the roughly 6 million US vehicles covered by the recalls. Under a deal reached with New York state, Toyota and Lexus drivers will be eligible for free at-home pickup of vehicles covered by the recalls and free rental cars.
Toyota’s North American sales chief suggested Wednesday during testimony that the program has been extended nationwide. But a company spokeswoman, Cindy Knight, said yesterday that New York is the only market where dealers are required to offer the services.
Knight said many dealers are providing similar customer perks and Toyota has helped dealers cover their costs.
Toyota’s January sales fell 16 percent even as most other automakers rebounded from last year’s dismal results.