WASHINGTON - Toyota Motor Corp President Akio Toyoda apologized to lawmakers probing the automaker's safety record but ended the day in tears, worried his message went lost in translation.
Toyoda, peppered with questions about the recall debacle that has rocked Toyota's reputation, told lawmakers he was deeply sorry for accidents and injuries involving Toyota cars. He said the company had lost its way during a period of fast growth but vowed to steer it back to the values that made it a watchword for quality.
Cheered by Toyota plant workers and dealers at an event organized by the automaker on Wednesday evening, Toyoda broke into tears under a giant display bearing the name of the company that his legendary grandfather founded.
I believe that Toyota has always worked for the benefit of the United States, Toyoda said. I tried to convey that message from the heart, but whether it was broadly understood or not, I don't know.
He also offered a sober assessment of the challenges still ahead: We at Toyota are at a crossroad. We need to rethink everything about our operation.
Toyoda's appearance in Washington marked a dramatic peak in a safety crisis that broke a month ago with a series of recalls over unintended acceleration and braking problems that now include more than 8.5 million vehicles globally.
The costs of the recall are set to grow with an agreement with New York state to speed customer repairs and provide alternative transportation, a pact likely to expand to other states.
Toyoda's efforts to reassure officials and consumers were undercut by a confrontation over a 2009 memo in which Toyota boasts of saving $100 million by persuading safety regulators to accept a relatively cheap recall of floor mats implicated in the unintended acceleration.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who preceded Toyoda before the committee, simply labeled recalled Toyota vehicles as not safe.
LaHood also repeated a criticism he had leveled before, saying Toyota had become a little safety deaf until U.S. regulators took the extraordinary step of dispatching a team to the automaker's headquarters at the end of 2009.
Dressed in a gray, pinstriped suit, Toyoda said he, more than anyone, wanted Toyota cars to be safe. My name is on every car, Toyoda said in English before using a translator to answer questions.
But Toyoda rejected the possibility that some of the acceleration problems are in the electronics rather than the recalled sticky accelerator mechanisms and floor mats that can trap the accelerator pedal.
I'm absolutely confident that there is no problem with the electronic throttle system, Toyoda told the committee.
Nevertheless, Toyota has hired outside consultancy Exponent Inc to research the electronic throttle, and lawmakers returned frequently to consumer complaints and some safety experts' concerns about the throttles.
Ohio Democrat Marcy Kaptur was one of the few lawmakers to prick Toyoda's grim-faced composure.
Waving a book celebrating Toyota's commitment to quality, she said she was not satisfied with his testimony. I don't think it reflected adequate remorse for those who died.
The exchange appeared to move Toyoda. I came here from Japan to speak to the people of the world, he responded. I'm trying to speak from my heart, but I understand the criticism that my explanation does not go far enough.
Chris Gidez, director of risk management and crisis communications at Hill & Knowlton, said Toyoda gets points for coming from Japan to testify and judgments will not be made in just one hearing. This is going to be a marathon for Toyota.
The unintended acceleration problems have been linked to five U.S. deaths, with 29 other fatality reports being examined by U.S. authorities.
Representative Paul Kanjorski, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, warned Toyoda that his company would have to pay for the deaths and injuries as U.S. lawsuits mount. You will be called upon to pay compensation, Kanjorski said.
Mark Saylor, an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer, was killed last August, along with three members of his family, when the Toyota Lexus sedan he was driving sped out of control. An accident that sparked the recent recalls.
Oversight panel chairman Edolphus Towns and other lawmakers blasted Toyota for the July 2009 memo boasting of limiting a 2007 recall of floor mats that were later implicated in that fatal accident.
The memo obtained by congressional investigators appears to be a briefing for Toyota's North American President Yoshi Inaba, and prepared by Toyota's Washington D.C. staff.
Rep. John Mica, a Florida Republican, called it an embarrassing day for regulators and for Toyota.
I'm embarrassed for you, sir, Mica told Inaba, who was testifying with Toyoda. I'm embarrassed for the thousands of Americans who work at 10 plants across the United States.
Inaba said he could not recall discussing the memo at a meeting held about two weeks after he took over Toyota's U.S. operations. He later added that the memo did not present Toyota's guiding principles or beliefs.
In a further embarrassment, both Toyoda and Inaba were forced to admit that they were unaware of key pieces of information that might have helped the automaker respond faster to safety concerns.
Inaba, who was brought back out of retirement by Toyoda to head U.S. operations in June, said he had not been aware that Toyota's European operations had identified the same problem with sticky accelerator pedals a year before the U.S. recall.
Toyoda said had not been briefed in any detail on a key meeting between Toyota safety executives and U.S. regulators in December 2009 where officials have said they hammered home the message that the automaker was moving too slowly.
Gerry Connolly, a Virginia Democrat, said Toyota appeared to suffer from extraordinary compartmentalization, a criticism echoed by other lawmakers in two days of hearings.
Toyota now faces a criminal investigation and a securities probe in the United States as well as unresolved questions about hundreds of incidents of unintended acceleration reported by consumers.
The FBI raided the Detroit operations of three Japanese suppliers of electronic components to the auto industry on Wednesday, but a person familiar with the investigation said the raids were unrelated to the Toyota recalls.
In his statement to the committee, Toyoda extended his condolences to the Saylor family and said he was deeply sorry that the company had allowed quality standards to slip during a period of fast growth over the past decade.
Toyota has promised internal reforms, including a new committee on safety chaired by Toyoda himself.
The crisis has shattered confidence in the world's largest automaker, whose vehicles have long been known for their reliability and high resale value.
At a February 3 congressional hearing, LaHood had advised owners of recalled Toyotas to stop driving their cars. He later told reporters he had misspoken.
LaHood reiterated on Wednesday that Toyota owners should take their vehicles to dealers to make sure they are repaired.
He also repeated promises that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would thoroughly investigate the possibility of electronic problems causing unintended acceleration.
The stoic composure of Toyoda and Inaba contrasted with LaHood who was at times irritated and combative.
When Californian Democrat Judy Chu asked whether NHTSA had ceased to be a watchdog and instead become a lapdog of the auto industry, LaHood bristled.
On my watch, we've been a lapdog for nobody, he boomed.
Toyoda, who took just a few questions from reporters, only appeared to relax at the evening rally organized for Toyota dealers and workers.
One woman who works in a Toyota plant in Alabama, building engines, asked what she could do to help the company in its crisis. Let's make a better car, Toyoda said, breaking into English.