Toyoda faces critical lawmakers over safety flaws

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Toyota Motor Corp chief Akio Toyoda said he took personal responsibility for the company's safety crisis and vowed to stay on to make sure customer complaints were taken more seriously.

Toyoda, peppered with questions about the recall debacle by sometimes-hostile lawmakers, said again on Wednesday he was deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced.

The Toyota president and his North American chief sat stonily as they faced the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, one of whose members said he was embarrassed for the company.

Toyoda's appearance 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 U.S. 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.

ELECTRONICS PROBED

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 lawmakers' questions.

But Toyoda rejected a theory 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.

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 at least five U.S. deaths, with 29 other fatality reports being examined by U.S. authorities.

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. That accident sparked the recent recalls.

Representative Paul Kanjorski, a Pennsylvania Democrat, 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.

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.

CRIMINAL PROBE

Toyota, founded by Toyoda's grandfather, 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 intended to increase attention to safety and ensure that future recalls happen more quickly in response to consumer complaints.

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 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. We've been a lapdog for the people who drive cars and want to do 'em safely.

(Additional reporting by Kevin Krolicki and Kim Dixon in WASHINGTON; David Bailey and Bernie Woodall in DETROIT; Graphic by Catherine Trevethan; Writing by Tim Dobbyn; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

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