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U.S. panel lambastes contrite Toyoda

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U.S. panel lambastes contrite Toyoda

House committee grills Toyota president on safety, questions NHTSA oversight

Christine Tierney, David Shepardson and Alisa Priddle / The Detroit News

Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda expressed deep regret Wednesday that people were hurt or killed in crashes in Toyotas and pledged before skeptical U.S. lawmakers to restore safety as a top priority at the company his grandfather founded.

Toyoda, speaking mostly in Japanese during 3 1/2 hours of congressional testimony, said quality had slipped during the automaker's rapid expansion.

But Toyoda and his top U.S. lieutenant, Yoshimi Inaba, rejected suggestions that the company was hiding defects or trying to save money by outwitting safety regulators.

Inaba, president of Toyota Motor North America and chairman of the automaker's U.S. sales subsidiary, said an internal company document bearing his name and describing such savings as "wins for Toyota" did not represent the company's view.

"This certainly doesn't represent Toyota's guiding principles," Inaba said. He said he had not written the July document that had been prepared for him as he took up his new responsibilities in the United States.

Toyoda, 53, has been in his job less than a year, too. He remained composed during even the harshest exchanges between the lawmakers and the Japanese executives.

Scolded by one congressional representative that he hadn't expressed sufficient remorse, Toyoda replied that "the fact you said it was not adequate is something that I will seriously reflect upon."

But compared with Tuesday's unrelenting questioning of Toyota's U.S. sales chief James Lentz by a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, Wednesday's hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform panel was less contentious.

The pace of the exchanges was constrained by Toyoda's need for a translator. Inaba, a fluent English speaker, addressed the lawmakers directly, stressing repeatedly that the company could have handled the situation better.

Prime minister comments

Toyota's problems seem most acute in the United States, site of the vast majority of its recent recalls. But the company also faces growing scrutiny in Japan. Japan's transport minister, Seiji Maehara, announced Wednesday that the government would investigate 38 reports of unintended acceleration of Toyota vehicles in Japan over the past three years.

Japanese officials are closely monitoring the developments here, which could have big implications for Japan's biggest industrial company.

Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama told reporters in Tokyo that Toyoda's testimony in Washington had gone well, according to Bloomberg News.

Unlike Tuesday's hearing, when the mood was charged early by a vivid account by Lexus driver Rhonda Smith of a terrifying experience as she struggled to slow down her racing car, the most poignant testimony on Wednesday came at the end of the hearing.

Fe Lastrella, the mother of a woman killed in a highly publicized crash near San Diego in August, said she could not bring herself to listen to the 911 call for help as the Lexus driven by her son-in-law Mike Saylor accelerated out of control and crashed, killing four.

"I didn't come here to cry on anyone else's shoulder but it's for the safety of the world," the schoolteacher told the committee. "We don't want another family to suffer like we are suffering."

Toyoda expressed his condolences to the Saylor family.

"I sincerely regret that some people encountered accidents in Toyota vehicles," Toyoda said.

Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., addressed Toyoda directly as he said the automaker would pay in the United States for injuries and deaths caused by flaws in its cars.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, at least 34 fatalities are linked to more than 2,600 reports of unintended acceleration of Toyota vehicles since 2001.

Toyota has recalled about 8.5 million vehicles worldwide since September, including 6 million in the United States, mostly for acceleration-related concerns.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood again Wednesday described the recalled Toyota cars as unsafe to drive. "We determined that they are not safe," he said.

LaHood questioned

But when asked if all recalled vehicles by all automakers were unsafe, LaHood seemed testy as he replied that they all needed to be taken to dealers for repairs.

On Tuesday, LaHood looked assertive and confident in the first of what are likely to be several hearings on Toyota's recalls. But LaHood was pushed harder on Wednesday.

Some lawmakers suggested that the Transportation Department and NHTSA were too cozy with automakers and perhaps lacked the resources to be effective.

Others questioned whether LaHood was coming down hard on Toyota. Why, for instance, was NHTSA more concerned about 84 complaints about the Toyota Corolla's steering when the Chevrolet Cobalt had received 10 times more complaints about the steering? Why was NHTSA threatening Toyota with more than $16 million in fines, one lawmaker asked, when the agency's biggest fine to date was $1 million?

LaHood, one of the Republicans in President Barack Obama's Cabinet, said NHTSA could have moved faster under the Bush administration in investigating Toyota sudden acceleration issues.

NHTSA conducted eight investigations over more than five years and did little until late last year.

"Some things ... should have been done more expeditiously" at NHTSA, LaHood said.

Consumer advocate Joan Claybrook, who was NHTSA administrator from 1977 to 1981, said the safety agency needs more funding and the ability to levy criminal penalties where warranted.

A former U.S.-based Toyota executive, Jim Press, broke his silence and said Wednesday that the "root cause" of Toyota's problems was that "the company was hijacked, some years ago, by anti-family, financially oriented pirates."

"They didn't have the character necessary to maintain a customer-first focus. Akio does," Press wrote in an e-mail to The Detroit News and other outlets. "Akio Toyoda is not only up for the job, but he is the only person who can save Toyota."

Press left Toyota in 2007 to join Chrysler LLC, but left the Auburn Hills automaker late last year, a few months after Fiat SpA took over the management of Chrysler.

From The Detroit News:


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