Toyota president agrees to testify before Congress

Posted Feb. 19, 2010 at 8:03 a.m.

CBB-Toyoda.jpgToyota President Akio Toyoda answers questions to reporters at the company’s Nagoya, Japan office. (JiJi Press/Getty)

Associated Press | Toyota President Akio Toyoda said Thursday he will testify at a U.S. congressional hearing next week about the automaker’s massive recalls in the United States.

He will be meeting face-to-face with U.S. lawmakers after enduring criticism that he had responded too slowly to the company’s safety crisis.
Toyoda, the grandson of the Japanese automaker’s founder, said in a statement he looks “forward to speaking directly with Congress and the American people.”

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The auto executive accepted the invitation from the chairman of the
House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee as
the government opened a fresh investigation into Corolla compacts over
potential steering problems. Toyota has faced an expanding safety crisis
during the past four months with the recall of roughly 8.5 million
vehicles over questions involving gas pedals, accelerators getting
jammed in floor mats and brakes on various vehicles.

Democratic Rep. Edolphus Towns, the committee chairman told Toyoda in
his invitation that motorists were “unsure as to what exactly the
problem is, whether it is safe to drive their cars, or what they should
do about it.” Towns and the committee’s top Republican, Rep. Darrell
Issa, said later that Toyoda’s testimony “will be helpful in
understanding the actions Toyota is taking to ensure the safety of
American drivers.”

Toyoda had said previously that he did not plan to attend a series of
hearings scheduled to start in Congress next week. He had told reporters
in Japan, however, that he would consider appearing if invited.

The decision to testify came as the Transportation Department formally
opened a preliminary investigation into 487,000 Toyota Corolla and
Corolla Matrix compacts from the 2009-2010 model years over concerns
about steering problems at highway speeds. The government has received
168 complaints and reports of 11 injuries and eight crashes on the
Corolla and Matrix compacts with electric power steering.

The Corolla investigation was expected after Toyota said it was looking
into complaints of power steering difficulties with the vehicle and
considering a recall as one option.

Reports of deaths in the U.S. connected to sudden acceleration in Toyota
vehicles have surged in recent weeks, with the toll of deaths allegedly
attributed to the problem reaching 34 since 2000, according to new
consumer data gathered by the government.

Toyoda is the latest embattled auto executive to testify before
Congress, more than a year after the leaders of General Motors, Chrysler
and Ford sought support for the U.S. auto industry and were scolded for
traveling to the hearings in private jets. About a decade ago, the
leaders of Ford and tire maker Bridgestone/Firestone were grilled by
Congress after crashes involving exploding tires led to more than 250
traffic deaths.

By issuing the invitation, the committee had essentially forced Toyoda
to testify or face a subpoena. Issa, the committee’s top Republican, had
urged Toyoda to meet with lawmakers and said if necessary, the
committee should compel the executive’s testimony.

Bill George, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School
and a former chairman and chief executive of Medtronic, said Toyoda was
“bowing to the pressure” by testifying and had made a “grievous error
in ducking public acknowledgement of the mistakes.”

George said Toyoda needed to offer “a sincere apology and a concrete set
of corrective actions, not ducking and weaving and saying this is not a

In Japan and in the United States, Toyota Motor Corp. has been
criticized for a tepid response to the recalls and the company’s top
executive has been accused of being largely invisible as the recalls
escalated. He has held three news conferences in recent weeks,
apologizing repeatedly for the recalls and promising changes.

Toyota has said it will create an outside review of company operations,
do a better job of responding to customer complaints and improve
communication with federal officials. Toyoda has said he plans to travel
to the United States soon to meet with workers and dealers, but the
company has not yet released his schedule.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of
Management, said Toyoda’s testimony would give the company a prime
opportunity to take responsibility for the problems. “He has to be
extremely well-prepared to take responsibility. He should take the full
force of the most hostile criticisms he gets and welcome them,”
Sonnenfeld said.

Congressional investigators and the Transportation Department have
demanded documents related to the Toyota recalls, seeking information on
how long the automaker knew of safety defects before taking action.

Toyota has provided about 50,000 pages of documents to congressional
investigators and is continuing to answer questions from staff members,
said Josephine Cooper, Toyota’s group vice president for public policy
and government and industry affairs. Cooper said technicians from a
Toyota training center in Maryland have been demonstrating to House
aides the company’s fix for floor mat entrapment and sticky accelerator

In a separate move, the Oversight Committee subpoenaed Toyota documents
from Dimitrios Biller, a former counsel for Toyota’s U.S. operations
from 2003-2007. The committee said it was seeking documents related to
motor vehicle safety, the company’s handling of defects and related

Toyota faces questions from three committees in Congress. The House
Energy and Commerce Committee moved its scheduled hearing up to Feb. 23,
one day ahead of the Oversight Committee meeting. The energy panel has
invited Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, and David
Strickland, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,
to testify. A Senate hearing, chaired by West Virginia Sen. Jay
Rockefeller, is planned for March 2.

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One comment:

  1. Copper Pots March 17, 2010 at 8:27 pm

    I really do not generally reply to posts but I am going to in this scenario. WoW