Toyota Motor Corp President Akio Toyoda said on Wednesday he has no plans to testify before U.S. investigators, setting the stage for a possible showdown over a safety crisis that has rocked the automaker's reputation and results.
His decision to send North America chief Yoshimi Inaba to congressional hearings on the recalls later this month, instead of making an appearance himself, was not what some key lawmakers wanted to hear.
Toyoda, grandson of the 77-year-old automaker's founder, said he believed Inaba was the logical choice to testify.
I have full confidence in the management of Toyota Motor North America, led by Mr. Inaba, and I believe he is the best placed to testify, Toyoda told reporters at his third news conference in two weeks.
The appearance by Toyoda came a day after the automaker moved to cut production in the United States and U.S. safety regulators opened an investigation into whether it had acted in a timely way in responding to red flags about the safety records of its vehicles.
A series of vehicle recalls since January have damaged Toyota's once-vaunted reputation for quality, safety and reliability. Up to 34 crash deaths have been blamed on unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles since 2000, according to consumer complaints filed with U.S. regulators.
Toyoda faces a deepening crisis just seven months into his tenure as the automaker's chief. He said Toyota may have grown too fast in recent years, outstripping its ability to ensure that vehicle quality standards were maintained.
In a bid to address the problem, Toyota said it would assign a chief quality officer in each of its regions and convene a new committee on quality at the end of March.
Toyoda said he planned to visit the United States at some point. He said he would consider whether to testify when and if there was a request.
Toyota confirmed plans to install a brake override system on all new vehicles in an attempt to limit the damage from global recalls for acceleration and braking problems that affect 8.5 million vehicles. The company had said in January that it would take that step to address concerns about unintended acceleration in its vehicles.
'THE AMERICAN PUBLIC HAS LOST TRUST'
Critics in the United States, Toyota's largest and historically most profitable market, said the limited response suggested Toyota and its senior executive ranks in Japan had not yet come to grips with the scope of its problems.
Former National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Joan Claybrook, a vehicle safety advocate who is scheduled to testify before Congress, said Toyota should install brake override systems on vehicles it has already sold, not just new models in production.
Anything that has an electronic accelerator should have an electronic brake override, Claybrook said. It's a cost consideration, definitely it is. But the American public has lost trust in Toyota and they need to regain that trust.
Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Rep. Darrell Issa, the ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee, said it was disappointing that Toyoda appeared reluctant to speak before the congressional panel set to meet next week.
The committee has not yet sent a formal invitation to Toyoda.
Mr. Toyoda was given every opportunity to come before Congress and the American people voluntarily to provide answers and assurances that Toyota will do everything in its power to ensure the safety of America's drivers, Bardella said.
I would think given the tremendous scrutiny Mr. Toyoda and his company are under, he would have seized the opportunity to personally appear and use the hearing as a forum to move forward, he said. Obviously, Mr. Toyoda is not as eager to give Congress and the American people answers as we first thought.
COROLLA STILL UNDER REVIEW
In a sign that Toyota's recalls could still broaden, NHTSA said it was continuing its review of complaints alleging steering problems in 2009 and 2010 Corollas to see if a formal investigation was warranted.
Toyota's quality chief, Shinichi Sasaki, said drivers had complained about a change in steering response compared with the older Corollas, which was possibly due to a switch from a hydraulic power steering system to an electric one.
Sasaki said there would be a recall only if the issue were deemed to be a safety breach.
Toyota's brake override system, similar to those already used by a number of the automaker's rivals, would cut engine power when the brake and accelerator pedals were engaged at the same time.
Inaba had said at an appearance in Detroit on January 12 that Toyota would install such a system on its new Toyota and Lexus models, starting with the Camry and Lexus ES 350 sedans. The company has not said whether it would offer that system -- a software upgrade in some cases -- for vehicles already on the road.
Consumer complaints about unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles in the United States have been rising since it began installing electronic throttle controls on its vehicles a decade ago.
Meanwhile, analyst doubts have been deepening about the pace of Toyota's earnings recovery. Only two weeks ago, the company estimated the recalls would reduce global sales by 100,000 units in the financial year to the end of March.
Toyoda said production cuts had been within expectations so far and he believed the company could stem further sales declines, although it was impossible to tell for sure.
In January, U.S. sales dropped 16 percent to the lowest level in more than a decade and another sharp decline is expected for February as Toyota dealers expect repairs to inventory will take most of the month to complete.
Toyota shares have fallen a fifth from a peak on January 21, wiping out more than $25 billion in market capitalization.
Shares were down 2.8 percent at $73.86 in New York Stock Exchange trading on Wednesday afternoon.
(Additional reporting by Yumiko Nishitani and Yoshifumi Takemoto and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; writing by Kevin Krolicki; editing by Lincoln Feast, Karen Foster and Matthew Lewis)