The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s hearing concluded on Wednesday after several hours of palpably tense Q and A. Throngs of American and Japanese reporters and camera technicians crowded Capitol Hill in preparation for the arrival of Akio Toyoda, global President and CEO of the company his grandfather founded nearly 75 years ago.
Toyoda arrived at the hearing with the shamed and blank look of a samurai in the moments before seppuku. With a translator seated to his right and Toyota’s chief operating officer for North America, Yoshimi Inaba, on his left, Toyoda read his statement in English with calm detachment. He emphasized Toyota’s driving principle of always putting the customer first and took full, personal responsibility for the slip in quality that has caused many Toyota drivers to lose their lives and dragged the company down with historically enormous worldwide recalls,
“I extend my condolences from the deepest part of my heart,” Toyoda said in response to one Committee member who doubted his sincerity.
When confronted with internal documents that underscored Toyota’s lackluster response to the long history of the sudden unintended acceleration reports, Toyoda and Inaba offered mostly forward-looking responses and more apologies, and their reticence evoked a harsher tone from some Committee members.
Chairman Towns, who opened the second part of the hearing by welcoming the Toyota executives with praise and gratitude, became agitated when Inaba failed to answer clearly whether all existing Toyota vehicles would receive a brake override system.
“Is that a yes or no? That’s what I’m trying to get to,” Towns said, prompting Inaba to intervene and explain that nearly a third of the recalled vehicles could not be retrofitted with the brake override control because it’s not technically possible.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) said that safety issues keep arising with Toyota vehicles, making it hard for consumers to regain their trust in the brand.
“The problem is it’s one thing to say you’re sorry, it’s another thing when it seems as if time after time there are pronouncements that problems are being addressed and over and over again they seem like they’re not being addressed,” Cummings said.
Rep. John R. Mica (R-Fla.) presented confidential documents that once circulated in the upper realms of Toyota to Inaba, who appeared alternately at a loss for words and forgetful. One document warned that Obama wasn’t as “industry friendly” as his predecessor. Another one boasted that the company’s Washington offices saved hundreds of millions of dollars by twisting the arms of federal regulators to ease recalls.
Mica said he was “appalled” by the documents. “I’m embarrassed for you, sir,” Mica told Inaba.
Rather than give substantial explanations for its recall decisions and inaction, Toyoda and Inaba often unveiled as counterpoint their plans for expanding and enhancing customer service in the U.S. and other countries. They also talked about decentralizing Toyota’s authoritative structure by allowing the company’s American executives to make key decisions where the safety of American consumers was concerned.
The executives repeatedly said that Toyota would also become “more transparent,” a phrase often used by President Obama in describing how his new administration would be run. Toyota has come under attack amidst the recalls for being too secretive by American standards.
Toyoda and Inaba both claimed that Toyota had grown too fast in recent years, blaming the company’s problems on its rapid ascent to the top of the auto manufacturing industry in recent years. Many auto and safety experts assert that Toyota became more preoccupied with overtaking General Motors as the leading car company in the world than with quality and responding to consumer complaints.