Toyota Motor Corp President Akio Toyoda, under pressure after a series of safety recalls, agreed on Thursday to appear before U.S. lawmakers investigating the crisis.
Toyoda, grandson of the founder of the world's top automaker, accepted an invitation to testify next Wednesday before a congressional panel. His decision ended days of uncertainty about how the embattled automaker would respond to growing calls for a fuller response to safety complaints.
I look forward to speaking directly with Congress and the American people, Toyoda said in a statement. A day earlier, he had told reporters that he would send Toyota's North American chief, Yoshimi Inaba and had no plans to appear himself.
The U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform Committee invited Toyoda on Thursday, a month into a safety crisis that has tarnished its reputation and hurt sales.
Toyota has recalled more than 6 million vehicles in the U.S. market for problems involving the accelerator pedal becoming stuck, either by a loose floor mat or because of a glitch in the pedal assembly. Up to 34 crash deaths have been blamed on unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles since 2000, according to complaints tracked by U.S. regulators.
A separate recall is under way to fix software controlling the brakes on Toyota's Prius hybrid. The global number of vehicles now under recall is about 8.5 million.
Toyoda, just seven months into his tenure in the top job at the automaker, has at times appeared uneasy with the heightened scrutiny.
Jiji news service said Toyoda would meet with reporters in Nagoya, Japan on Friday morning.
The House oversight panel said it had also issued a subpoena for internal documents Toyota had fought to keep sealed in a legal battle with a former employee who says the automaker routinely hid evidence of safety problems.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said the Obama administration hoped Toyota would do all it could to rectify a dangerous situation.
Everybody, I think, is rightly concerned about the recalls that have happened, Gibbs said.
Representative Edolphus Towns, chairman of the oversight panel and Representative Darrell Issa, ranking Republican, said they were pleased Toyoda had agreed to answer questions.
We believe his testimony will be helpful in understanding the actions Toyota is taking to ensure the safety of American drivers, they said in a joint statement.
Towns, a Democrat from New York, had said Toyoda needed to appear before Congress to address growing public confusion about the recalls.
The House oversight hearing on Wednesday is one of two congressional inquiries set for next week into the Toyota safety crisis. On Tuesday, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold its own hearing.
The oversight panel has asked insurers for information they provided to U.S. safety regulators on reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles.
Jim Cain, an automotive industry veteran with a background in crisis communications at The Quell Group, said Toyoda had no choice but to appear when summoned by lawmakers.
There are plenty of people who can respond to the questions that Congress and investigators are going to have about what exactly happened and when, but we need to have that assurance as Americans, as consumers, as investors, as dealers from the person who is leading that company, whose name is on the building, Cain said.
REPUTATION AT RISK
Complaints about unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles have been rising for a decade. Some safety advocates and lawyers for crash victims have questioned whether the electronic throttle control system Toyota began using widely during that time is to blame.
By issuing a subpoena for thousands of pages of internal Toyota documents, the House oversight panel injected itself into a dispute between the automaker and a former employee at its Los Angeles-area U.S. headquarters.
Dimitrios Biller, who headed a corporate legal team that defended Toyota in rollover-accident lawsuits, took some 6,000 internal documents when he left Toyota in 2007, and has sued the automaker under U.S. racketeering laws.
He has said the documents support his allegations that the company systematically hid or destroyed legal evidence that would have led to costly trials in the United States.
Toyota sought -- and won -- a ruling from a court-appointed arbitrator to keep Biller from making the documents public.
In a separate move, NHTSA filed paperwork on Thursday confirming it had opened a probe into the Toyota Corolla and Matrix models. The agency said it had received 168 complaints alleging that steering on the vehicles can wander and drift.
The preliminary review, which could affect an estimated 487,000 vehicles, cited seven complaints involving 2009 models and one for 2010 cars. Owners allege eight crashes and 11 injuries, none fatal, according to NHTSA.
Preliminary investigations by regulators are common and often close without a recall.
Analysts said the more serious threat to Toyota was not the cost of further recalls but potential damage to a brand that has been the industry standard for quality.
Toyota said it was looking into complaints about the steering systems of the Corolla. It has said it would recall the car only if it found a safety risk.
Toyota's safety woes are deepening at a time when automakers worldwide are struggling to emerge from a deep decline in sales -- led by a collapse in the U.S. market -- that prompted bankruptcies and consolidation.
Toyota's U.S. sales dropped 16 percent in January and are expected to take a big hit in February as well.
(Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Helen Massy-Beresford in Paris, Jeff Mason and Caren Bohan aboard Air Force One; writing by Kevin Krolicki; Editing by Chris Gallagher, Will Waterman, Matthew Lewis and David Gregorio)