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Toyota CEO comes to Washington with an apology

By LAURIE KELLMAN and STEPHEN MANNING
Associated Press Writers
WASHINGTON (AP) - Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda apologized personally
and repeatedly Wednesday to the United States and millions of
American Toyota owners for safety lapses that have led to deaths
and widespread recalls. Unimpressed lawmakers blistered the world's
largest automaker with accusations of greed and insensitivity.
"I'm deeply sorry for any accident that Toyota drivers have
experienced," the grandson of the founder of the Japanese auto
giant told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He
suggested his company's "priorities became confused" in a quest
for growth over the past decade at the expense of safety concerns.
Toyoda told the panel he was "absolutely confident" there was
no problem with the electronics of Toyota vehicles and repeated the
company's stance that sudden accelerations were caused by either a
sticking gas pedal or a misplaced floor mat. Some outside experts
have suggested electronics may be at the root of the problems.
Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles, mostly to fix problems
with floor mats trapping gas pedals or with pedals getting stuck.
In addition, Toyoda said the company is making changes so brake
pedals can override a sudden acceleration and bring a runaway
vehicle to a safe stop.
The company said Wednesday it will offer free at-home pickup of
vehicles covered by the national safety recall, pay for customers'
out-of-pocket transportation costs and provide drivers free rental
cars during repairs. The deal - costs to the company weren't
specified - was initially announced as part of an agreement between
Toyota and New York state.
After an exchange of pleasantries that included praise from
committee members for his willingness to step into a lion's den,
Toyoda and a top deputy drew heavy fire from both Democrats and
Republicans for the company's slowness in dealing with safety
defects in its autos and trucks that led to deaths and eventually
the massive recalls.
Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said it was a "very embarrassing day"
for Toyota and for U.S. highway safety regulators. He said he was
equally embarrassed for U.S. Toyota dealers and for the thousands
of hardworking Americans in "Toyota plants across the country."
Mica held aloft a copy of a July 2009 internal Toyota document
boasting of a "win" for Toyota in striking a deal with the U.S.
government for a more limited recall involving floor mats. The
document said the agreement saved the company $100 million.
Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., cited "injuries and the damages
suffered by innocent Americans ... who like myself have grown up in
an atmosphere that we had a great deal of faith in something that
was stamped 'Made in Japan."'
"It was of the highest reliability. You injured that thought
process in the American public and you will be called upon in our
system to pay compensation for that," Kanjorski said.
And Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., told the Toyota chief, "It's
one thing to say you're sorry. It's another when it seems as if
time after time there are pronouncements that problems are being
addressed and over and over again it seems like they're not being
addressed."
He asked why Americans "should pay hard-earned money on a
Toyota in hard economic times?"
"I sincerely regret that some people actually encountered
accidents in their vehicles," said Toyoda, who gave his opening
remarks in heavily accented English but chose to respond to
questions in Japanese with a translator.
Toyoda said that great strides had been taken by his company to
put "safety first. Notwithstanding that, accidents actually
happen," he said.
House committee chairman Edolphus Towns welcomed Toyoda and
thanked him for volunteering to testify. "We're very impressed
with that. It shows your commitment to safety as well," Towns
said.
Toyoda pledged his company would change the way it handles
consumer complaints, including seeking greater input from drivers
and outside safety experts when considering recalls. Toyota
managers will also drive cars under investigation to experience
potential problems first hand, he said.
Toyoda read from prepared remarks that had been released the day
before.
"My name is on every car. You have my personal commitment that
Toyota will work vigorously and unceasingly to restore the trust of
our customers," he said. He delivered his short remarks clearly in
somewhat accented English. However, when the questioning session
began, he switched to Japanese with the help of a translator.

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


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