Toyota president Akio Toyoda on Feb. 24 faced a grilling on auto defects blamed for 30 deaths, with the future of the embattled carmaker and perhaps U.S.-Japan trade relations at stake.
Hours before the hearing, where Toyoda was to apologize to angry lawmakers, Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said the company's image and ties between the allies required the executive to "act sincerely and in good faith."
"If he does that, I think it's very possible that Toyota would gradually regain the public's trust, without making this issue a major economic problem between Japan and the United States," said Hatoyama.
In Japan, Transport Minister Seiji Maehara announced a probe of Toyota's issues with the sudden and unintended acceleration of vehicles -- the subject of the US hearing -- but said the company had no more such problems than its competitors.
Maehara said the ministry would "carefully review" 38 complaints about the problem between 2007 and 2009, but underlined that "Toyota does not receive more complaints than other carmakers," considering its market share.
Toyoda, who was appearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, was likely to face tough questions about whether the firm had fully addressed the sudden, potentially deadly spikes in speed, with a pair of recalls for sticky pedals and floormats that can jam accelerators.
On Feb. 23, Toyota's top U.S. executive, James Lentz, told another House panel the company's moves to pull some 8.5 million vehicles off the road -- six million in the United States -- had "not totally" addressed the problem. Lentz said the company had found no evidence of an electronics problem being to blame but, under heavy fire from angrily skeptical US lawmakers, admitted Toyota had not completely ruled that possibility out.
Asked about the possibility of more damaging disclosures, Lentz replied: "God, I hope there aren't any more. I've had enough bombshells for one year."
The firm's president of North American operations, Yoshimi Inaba, will also testify on Feb. 24, and was expected to announce that Toyota will install "advanced brake override systems" in all new models in the region by 2011.
U.S. consumer advocate Joan Claybrook, a former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), was to tell the same committee that Toyota had not been "an honorable company."
"If Toyota had been an honorable company and recalled the defective vehicles when it first learned of the problems in 2003/2004, or perhaps even earlier and taken steps to redesign subsequent production, many of the resulting deaths and injuries would not have occurred," she said.
Also on Feb. 23, Rhonda Smith held lawmakers spellbound with a harrowing tale of how her luxury car became an uncontrollable missile. The Tennessee woman's voice broke as she recalled placing what she thought would be her last telephone call to her husband Eddie as her Lexus ripped forward on a highway at over 100 miles per hour. "I knew he could not help me, but I wanted to hear his voice one more time," said Smith, who accused Toyota and the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of ignoring her subsequent pleas to fix the problem.
"Shame on you, Toyota, for being so greedy. And shame on you, NHTSA, for not doing your job," she said.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told lawmakers that he had found Toyota's Japan-based leaders "safety-deaf" when he took office last year but he believed the company was charting a different course.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2010
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