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Toyota CEO Apologizes for Safety Lapses

  • Michael Bowman

Akio Toyoda entered a packed congressional hearing room to deliver a simple message:

"I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced," said Akio Toyoda.

The Toyota CEO acknowledged that the public's confidence in the company that bears his family name has been shaken, and said he takes "full responsibility" for the problems that have emerged. Toyoda said the phenomenon of sudden acceleration in some Toyota vehicles has been identified and corrected, and that the corporation remains fully committed to safety.

He also offered a hypothesis as to how problems arose for the world's top carmaker, saying the company's priorities, as he put it, "became confused" in the midst of vigorous sales growth in the United States and elsewhere.

"Toyota has, for the past few years, been expanding its business rapidly," he said. "Quite frankly, I fear the pace at which we have grown may have been too quick."

Later, Toyoda responded to questions from U.S. representatives as to how Toyota executives in Japan learned of safety issues and how they responded to them. In 2007, Toyota initially blamed sudden acceleration on floor mats. The company later faulted sticky gas pedals. A current theory holds that the problem arises from an electrical malfunction in computer-controlled acceleration devices.

The CEO was also pressed on measures the company is taking to fix recalled vehicles, and compensation that will be provided to crash victims and their families.

Earlier in the day, the congressional committee heard from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who oversees the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Several representatives accused the agency, which is tasked with ensuring automobile safety in the United States, of being slow to act on complaints regarding Toyota vehicles.

Democratic Congressman Edolphus Towns is chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee:

"The way these complaints were handled indicates problems at both NHTSA and Toyota," said Edolphus Towns. "There is a serious question of whether NHTSA used all of its regulatory tools to thoroughly investigate this issue."

LaHood defended NHTSA, calling it the most effective automotive investigative agency in the world.

"Over just the last three years, NHTSA's defect and compliance investigations have resulted in 524 recalls involving 23 million vehicles," said Ray LaHood. "We have not been sitting around on our hands. When people complain, we investigate."

LaHood said that NHTSA continues to gather documentation from Toyota about problems with runaway cars and the company's responses to it.

Wednesday, Toyota reached an agreement with the state of New York to pick up recalled vehicles and provide drivers free rental cars during repairs. At the congressional hearing, the head of Toyota's North American operations, Yoshimi Inaba, said the program would be extended nationwide.