Toyota President Akio Toyoda apologized for safety problems that have left the Japanese carmaker in crisis as the group considered another recall -- this time over the brakes on the newest Prius hybrids.
Believe me, Toyota cars are safe, said Toyoda -- the grandson of Toyota's founder -- breaking his near-total silence on the recall woes.
The news conference came after U.S. rival Ford Motor Co also readied a solution for braking glitches on two of own hybrid models, in what appeared to point to a broader problem with the brakes on hybrid cars.
Toyoda spoke at the company's office in Nagoya, central Japan. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize from the bottom of my heart for causing many of our customers concern after the recalls across several models in several regions, he said.
Toyota has recalled some 8 million cars worldwide over problems related to unintended acceleration and linked to up to 19 crash deaths in the United States over the past decade. Toyoda pledged to set up and personally oversee a quality improvement task force that would involve external experts monitoring quality management, among other steps.
The arrival of independent experts is about as good as you can expect, said UBS analyst Philippe Houchois.
I've seen a lot of recalls but I don't remember seeing that step of getting an outside expert. That's quite an innovative or aggressive approach to try to solve the problem, Houchois added.
Nevertheless, the crisis has pummeled the world number one car maker's reputation for quality and reliability.
Toyoda's near total absence from view since the crisis began has prompted widespread criticism.
Toyoda bowed in apology after his speech and was persuaded to answer further questions, some in English, after an official had tried to end the late-night session.
The 53 year-old took over as president last year with a promise to steer the company out of its worst downturn in history and bring greater transparency to its sprawling corporate culture.
Kazutaka Oshima, president of Rakuten Investment Management, said investors needed answers.
Toyoda is responsible for explaining to shareholders since they have lost a significant part of their assets.
The company president asked investors to continue to support us with a long-term view.
Toyota shares have lost about $30 billion or a fifth of their value since January 21 when it launched a U.S. recall related to faulty accelerator pedals.
Toyota said its U.S. dealers had started fixing the pedals and notifying affected owners on Friday.
Safety regulators in both the United States and Japan are now investigating braking problems with the company's latest version of the Prius, Japan's top-selling car last year and an icon of green design that has lifted the public image of the whole company.
Japan's transport minister said he had heard from ministry officials that Toyota would recall or voluntarily fix the automobiles affected, including those shipped overseas.
Toyota's response came up short from the perspective of its customers, Transport Minister Seiji Maehara said.
Since its launch last May, Toyota has sold over 300,000 units of the newest version of the Prius worldwide, including around 200,000 in Japan, 103,200 in the United States and 29,000 in Europe.
Both Toyota's and Ford's hybrids capture the energy from braking to recharge an on-board battery to boost mileage from its gasoline engine.
On bumpy roads and on ice, the regenerative brakes of the Prius appear to slip, allowing the vehicle to lurch forward before the traditional brakes engage, Prius owners have said.
The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it has received 124 complaints from drivers of the third-generation Prius. Four crashes were alleged by motorists to have been caused by the problems, NHTSA said.
Both Toyota and Ford said they had come up with software fixes for the problems. Toyota said it had started fixing the problems last month, a step it only revealed on Thursday.
Ford's decision to roll out a software patch for consumers to address similar problems with braking on the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan models came after Consumer Reports said one of its test engineers had experienced what appeared to be a loss of braking power with a Fusion hybrid.
Ford said it was aware of one minor accident related to the braking problem but no injuries.
The No.2 U.S. automaker by sales notified its dealers of the problem in October but not the public because it did not believe the glitch represents a failure of the brakes.
Ford shares ended almost 5 percent lower on Thursday.
Shares in Toyota picked up from a 10-month low on Friday in Tokyo after it reported better-than-expected quarterly results and raised its outlook despite its growing recall-related problems.
Elsewhere, Suzuki Motor Corp and Mazda Motor Corp raised profit forecasts on cost cuts and higher demand in India and China.
In Europe, truckmaker Volvo said it saw a gradual upturn in 2010, as it said it boosted its cash reserves.
(Additional reporting by Chang-Ran Kim, Yumiko Nishitani, Taiga Uranaka, Elaine Lies, Fang Yan, John Crawley and Helen Massy-Beresford; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Jean Yoon and Andrew Callus)