Toyota president apologizes under fire of U.S. officials

Last year, Toyota took the extraordinary step of suspending the manufacture and sale of some of its most popular models because of a flaw in their accelerators. Toyota executives soon were called to Capitol Hill for testimony and a probe was launched to find the cause of the problem.
By Frank Ahrens and Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 25, 2010

From the moment the witnesses raised their rights hands and bowed their heads, through the halting mistranslations and the offerings of "konnichiwa" -- good afternoon -- it was clear that the normal rituals of a congressional hearing would be bent, if not broken.

Akio Toyoda, the grandson of the founder of the world's largest automaker, and Yoshimi Inaba, the company's North American president, appeared Wednesday before the House oversight committee to offer an apology and explanation for the defects that have caused their vehicles to sometimes accelerate out of control.

In words and gestures, they were nothing if not contrite. Throughout hours of testimony, Toyoda and Inaba used words such as "shameful" when describing past events, and "modestly" and "humbly" to describe how they will approach their responsibility for safety in the future.

Toyoda reminded the committee that he is in some ways the human embodiment of the car company, and that he, more than anyone, would want to repair the damage.

"All the Toyota vehicles bear my name," Toyoda said in his opening statement. "When the cars are damaged, it is though I am, as well."

The day didn't start well for the automaker.

To frame the hearing, committee Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) recounted the deaths of California Highway Patrol officer Mark Saylor and his family, who rocketed down a San Diego road as their Lexus accelerated out of control, and whose last pleas were recorded in a 911 call.

"There is striking evidence that the company was at times more concerned with profit than with customer safety," Towns said.

Then Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood excoriated the company for being "safety deaf" -- that is, not hearing and reacting to the numerous complaints of customers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has said that as many as 39 deaths may be linked to unintended acceleration in Toyotas.

But through demeanor and apology, Toyoda and Inaba seemed to defuse at least some of the anger.

"I am deeply sorry for any accidents Toyota drivers have experienced," Toyoda said.

Again: "I sincerely regret accidents."

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