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Toyota recall: What took so long?

aiko_toyoda100224.gi.top.jpgBy Ben Rooney, staff reporter


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Lawmakers grilled Toyota's president, Akio Toyoda, in a hearing Wednesday aimed at discovering, among other things, why the automaker was slow to respond to safety issues related to sudden acceleration.

Mr. Toyoda acknowledged that the company had made mistakes and repeatedly apologized for the recent lapses in quality control. But he did not provide specific answers to questions about what the company knew about certain defects and when they were discovered.

Members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform repeatedly asked Mr. Toyoda if his company had provided U.S. safety regulators with all the information they requested.

"According to my understanding, we fully shared the information we have with the authorities," Mr. Toyoda said, speaking through a translator.

Mr. Toyoda, who is the grandson of the company's founder, read his opening remarks in English, but relied on a translator for the majority of his testimony. Yoshimi Inaba, the president of Toyota's North America division, testified before the committee in English.

Committee members also peppered the executives with questions about why Toyota didn't respond faster to customer complaints about sudden unintended acceleration.

In response, Mr. Toyoda acknowledged that the company's efforts failed to live up to its core values and pointed to the company's plans to set up a global commission to address complaints more quickly and efforts to increase transparency on safety issues.

However, some lawmakers did not find Mr. Toyoda's answers sufficient.

Marcy Kaptur, D-OH, said she was "disappointed" with Mr. Toyoda's testimony, adding that she did not feel he had shown sufficient remorse or taken enough note of the amount of complaints over the last decade.

The executives also came under fire for a 2009 memo in which Toyota staffers boasted of the company saving $100 million by negotiating a limited recall for certain cars.

Mr. Inaba, whose name appeared on the document, said the it was "inconsistent with the guiding principle of Toyota." He added that the report was made shortly after he rejoined the company and that he was not involved in writing it.

Toyota has been criticized for not responding quickly enough to customer complaints about sudden acceleration, which have been blamed for several accidents resulting in injuries or death. The automaker has recalled over eight million vehicles worldwide for this problem.

Mr. Toyoda attributed instances of unintended acceleration to certain factors, including the way the car is used or misused, and other "structural aspects." But he said he was "absolutely confident" that there are no defects with the design of Toyota's electronic throttle control system.

After the nearly three hour hearing was over, Mr. Toyoda told reporters that he plans to make "sweeping changes" at the automaker.

"Going forward I intend to make every effort to achieve the transformation and rebirth of the company by making safety and 'customer first' the top priority," he said.

In response to the human toll of the company's safety problems, Mr. Toyoda extended his condolences to members of the Salyor family, who lost four members in a crash involving a recalled Toyota vehicle in San Diego.

"I would like to send my prayers again," Mr. Toyoda said. "And I will do everything in my power to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again."

However, when asked if Toyota would pay for the medical or funeral expenses for drivers killed or injured in crashes involving defective Toyota cars, the executives hedged.

Mr. Inaba said the question will be resolved by the company's legal team.

In his prepared remarks, Mr. Toyoda said the automaker's rapid growth over the last few years contributed to the recent lapses in safety and outlined new steps the company will take to ensure quality control.

Toyota will devise a system to convey customer complaints from around the world to the company's management in a timely manner, he said. It will also implement a system in which each region will be able to make recall decisions as necessary.

In addition, Toyota form a "quality advisory group" that Mr. Toyoda said will be "composed of respected outside experts from North America and around the world to ensure that we do not make a misguided decision."

Mr. Toyoda, who became the company's president in June, said the automaker will "invest heavily" in quality in the U.S. and will establish an Automotive Center of Quality Excellence and will introduce the new position of Product Safety Executive.

Toyota has grown its sales in recent years, outpacing General Motors (GM, Fortune 500) as the world's top-selling automaker. But its recent troubles have stained its reputation as a bright light in Japan's otherwise stagnant economy.

Prior to Mr. Toyoda's testimony, Department of Transportation secretary Ray LaHood testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He defended himself against criticism for not having taken enough action concerning the faulty vehicles.

"We haven't been sitting around on our hands," said LaHood. "When there needs to be a recall, we do it."

Aaron Smith, CNNMoney.com staff writer contributed to this report To top of page

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