Toyota's president admitted the company let safety standards slip in the race to be the world's largest car maker. Akio Toyoda yesterday also said he was "deeply sorry" for the accidents linked to problems with Toyota cars, which had led to the recall of millions of vehicles and fierce criticism of the company and the US national highway traffic safety administration (NHTSA).
"I regret that this has resulted in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today, and I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced," said Mr Toyoda in written testimony ahead of his appearance before a US congressional panel yesterday. "We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organisation, and we should sincerely be mindful of that."
Mr Toyoda, a grandson of the company's founder, was expected to face tough questions from the committee, the second of three panels looking into the response to the accelerator problems blamed for about 30 deaths in the US. James Lentz, who heads Toyota Motor Sales US, drew sharp scepticism on Tuesday when he told the House energy and commerce committee that electronic malfunctions were not responsible for the potentially deadly increases in speed.
But Mr Lentz admitted recalls for sticking accelerator pedals and pedals that could become trapped under floor mats would "not totally" solve the problem and said Toyota had not wholly dismissed electronic flaws. "We continue to be vigilant and continue to investigate all of the complaints that we get from consumers," he told the panel. Toyota's vows to increase quality control and be more vigilant about recalls did nothing to soothe the anger of Rhonda Smith, of Tennessee, who told the panel how her luxury car accelerated out of her control.
Her voice cracked as she recalled placing what she thought would be her last telephone call to her husband Eddie as her Lexus raced along a motorway at more than 160kph. "I knew he could not help me, but I wanted to hear his voice one more time," said Mrs Smith, who accused Toyota and the NHTSA of since ignoring her pleas to fix the problem. "Shame on you, Toyota, for being so greedy. And shame on you, NHTSA, for not doing your job."
In another blow to the company, David Gilbert, a car technology professor, told the panel he had found a possible electronic reason for the fault in just three and a half hours for next to no money. Mr Lentz accused the professor of not doing his research in "real-world" conditions and saying "it just seems a little good to be true" that he would succeed where Toyota's experts had failed. Toyota is fixing more than 8 million vehicles because of accelerator, brake and steering problems and faces class-action lawsuits potentially costing billions of dollars.
Mr Toyoda, a qualified test driver, talked of his personal pain at the problems confronting the Japanese giant, which is embroiled in the worst crisis of its 73-year history. "For me, when the cars are damaged, it is as though I am as well," his testimony said. "I, more than anyone, wish for Toyota's cars to be safe and for our customers to feel safe when they use our vehicles." Toyoda said a new quality advisory group of experts, including some from the US, would be established to avoid future mistakes.
Ray LaHood, the US transport secretary, said he had found Toyota's Japan-based leaders "safety-deaf" when he took office last year but that he believed the company was changing for the better. And a key committee member, the Democratic representative Bart Stupak, accused Toyota of relying on a "flawed" study to dismiss the electronic problem and misleading the public about the causes. The hearings come as Toyota answers a request for documents from a US grand jury investigating whether there is enough evidence for criminal charges over the defects.
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