Toyota CEO apologizes for recall, accidents

WASHINGTON (AP) - Akio Toyoda, scion of the beleaguered Toyota
empire, is apologizing Wednesday before a House committee
investigating deadly flaws that sparked the recall of 8.5 million
cars.

Toyoda, the automaker's 53-year-old chief executive, says the
company grew too fast to keep up with safety controls.

"We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to
develop our people and our organization," Toyoda said in testimony
prepared for delivery Wednesday. "I regret that this has resulted
in the safety issues described in the recalls we face today, and I
am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have
experienced."

An apology won't be enough for the feisty panel of lawmakers on
the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in a year in
which every one faces re-election. Nor will any culture gap;
Japanese CEOs typically serve symbolic roles akin to figureheads
without much power to control operations.

Toyoda at first declined to appear before the panel but
acquiesced last week when he was officially invited. He shouldn't
expect an easy day. His appearance comes as Japan opened its own
investigation into unintended acceleration with Toyota and other
vehicles in that country.

In advance of the hearing on Capitol Hill, Rep. Paul Kanjorski,
a member of the committee, said he expects a lot from Toyoda. "I'm
naive enough to believe that a global CEO is a global CEO," he
said, adding that an apology alone will not suffice.

"He's going to have to say more than that," the Pennsylvania
Democrat said. "We all have questions for him."

In harmony-loving Japan, company chiefs are usually picked to
cheerlead the rank and file. As the grandson of the company's
founder, Toyoda was groomed to play that role - and even dubbed
"the prince" of the auto empire for a time.

Japanese corporate royalty or no, Toyoda is familiar with the
United States and its corporate culture. He received his MBA in
1982 at Babson College in Massachusetts. He spent time in
California as vice president of a joint venture between Toyota
Motor Corp. and General Motors Corp., a period the Contra Costa
Times described as a stint learning the family business while
studying the American mind.

"We do not seek the spotlight," the casual Toyoda was quoted
as saying in his first interview. "We try always to be low-key,
not to be outspoken."

A dozen years later, the blood from dozens of claims over fatal
crashes staining the family dynasty, Toyoda has no choice. A
significant chunk of Washington's lobbying industry and some part
of the struggling American economy hang on his appearance as it's
broadcast around the world.

Japan's national Asahi newspaper said in an editorial that
Toyoda's testimony "not only determines Toyota's fate, but may
affect all Japanese companies and consumer confidence in their
products. President Toyoda has a heavy load on his shoulders."

Toyoda, who speaks halting English, planned to appear with a
translator by his side, as well as Yoshimi Inaba, president and CEO
of Toyota Motor North America Inc., who is fluent in English.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and David Strickland, the
new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,
also were expected to testify. Also scheduled to appear was the
mother of an off-duty California highway patrolmen killed with
three family members in a runaway Lexus on a San Diego highway in
August.

LaHood defended NHTSA in his prepared testimony, saying it has
acted aggressively to force Toyota to address safety problems. He
told lawmakers Tuesday that the agency is looking closely at
whether electronics are to blame.

"We will get in the weeds on this," he testified.

Rep. Darrell Issa, the leading Republican on the House
investigative panel, accused NHTSA Wednesday of falling down on the
job, saying on CBS's "The Early Show" he believes the agency was
too cozy with the industry it regulated and that NHTSA had
"abandoned" safety investigations that should have been further
pursued.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, in an op-ed editorial in
Wednesday's editions of The Washington Post, said, "I hope
Congress will resist the temptation to attack Toyota simply to
advance the interests of American competitors."

Lawmakers indicated they will continue to push Toyoda for
answers on whether his company's top-selling cars and trucks are
safe to drive. The Transportation Department's vehicle safety
division also faces continued questions over whether it took the
problem seriously enough and paid attention to warnings signs with
Toyotas long before the recalls.

Toyoda's three-page statement departs somewhat from his native
formality. In it, Toyoda emphasizes that he personally test-drives
Toyotas. And he makes a personal appeal for credibility.

"My name is on every car," he says.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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