Page last updated at 23:24 GMT, Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Toyota president says recall-hit firm 'grew too fast'

Akio Toyoda, Toyota president
I, more than anyone, wish for Toyota's cars to be safe, and for our customers to feel safe when they use our vehicles
Akio Toyoda, Toyota president

Toyota's rapid expansion might have prompted safety issues which have led to 8.5 million vehicles being recalled, the carmaker's president has said.

Ahead of an appearance before a US congressional hearing on Wednesday, Akio Toyoda said the firm's growth "may have been too quick".

He added that "priorities became confused" as the carmaker grew.

The reputation of Toyota has been severely damaged by a string of major problems across a range of vehicles.

The main issues have been faulty accelerator pedals, accelerator pedals getting stuck in floor mats, and a problem with braking systems on its hybrid models.

Personal apology

Mr Toyoda, the grandson of the company's founder, said that he took a personal responsibility for improving the quality of Toyota cars.

"All the Toyota vehicles bear my name. For me, when the cars are damaged, it is as though I am as well. I, more than anyone wish for Toyota's cars to be safe, and for our customers to feel safe when they use our vehicles."

Adam Brookes
Adam Brookes
BBC News, Washington

James Lentz, it transpires, is no engineer. Although he is US head of Toyota, he told the committee decisions about quality control, engineering and recalls are all made in Japan.

Members of Congress appeared bemused at this news. And when Rep Dingell of Michigan fired a series of technical questions, Mr Lentz was utterly unable to reply.

Rep Dingell - from the car state, of course - was merciless. Mr Lentz took on an air of helplessness.

Soon after, he told Rep Rush of Illinois how he understood the pain of the victims' families. He choked up remembering his own brother's death in a car accident. It was a moment made for TV, but did not dissipate the feeling that Mr Lentz was the wrong man in the wrong seat.

Congress has not yet accepted that Toyota understands why these cars surged out of control. The committee is groping for the rest of the story.

And he added: "We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organisation and we should be sincerely mindful of that."

Mr Toyoda said he was "deeply sorry" for accidents which had occurred and made a personal apology to the family of Mark Saylor, a California highway patrol officer killed along with his wife, daughter and brother-in-law in a crash that led to renewed US government scrutiny of problems with acceleration in some models.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee also heard from Rhonda Smith - who fought back tears as she told of a "near death" experience in October 2006 after the Toyota Lexus she was driving would not slow down.

Mrs Smith said the company "chose to blatantly ignore" her concerns and told politicians that both Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had dismissed her belief that the vehicle's electronics were to blame.

James Lentz, US head of Toyota, also appeared before committee. In his testimony he said "we failed to promptly analyse and respond" to information provided.

"The problem has also been compounded by poor communications both within our company and with regulators and consumers."

'Serious flaws'

Rhonda Smith: "The car remains in reverse as it speeds to over 100mph"

Committee chairman Henry Waxman wrote to Mr Lentz on Monday and raised three concerns following a preliminary review of the documents provided by Toyota:

• Toyota "consistently dismissed" the possibility that electronic failures could be responsible for acceleration problems

• The report that Toyota commissioned to look at potential electronic problems appeared to have "serious flaws" and the company was too slow in initiating it

• Toyota's public statements about the adequacy of its recent recalls appeared to be "misleading".

Mr Waxman also wrote to Ray LaHood, Secretary of the Department of Transportation, who was also questioned.

In the letter, he criticised the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for "lacking expertise" and said its response to complaints about sudden unintended acceleration appeared to have been "seriously deficient".

In Mr LaHood's prepared testimony, he said regulators would continue to investigate "all possible causes" of unintended acceleration.

Robust sales

Oct 2009 - 3.8 million vehicles are recalled in the US following floor mat problems. More recalls follow in the next few months, over various safety concerns, totalling 8.5 million worldwide by Feb 2010
5 Feb - Toyota president Akio Toyoda apologises for the recalls and pledges to target quality control. However, he is criticised for not bowing deeply enough
9 Feb - Mr Toyoda publicly apologises again and this time is seen to get the bow right
18 Feb - Mr Toyoda announces that he will face questioning in Congress, having previously said that he would not, after being formally asked to do so
23 Feb - the congressional hearings begin, with Toyota's head of US operations, James Lentz, among the first to be grilled.

Toyota said on Tuesday that its global sales were 15% higher in January - when many of the recalls had already been announced - than they were a year ago.

Domestic sales jumped 45%, while overseas sales rose nearly 9%.

On Monday, Toyota said it had received subpoenas asking it to produce documents relating to the safety problems and the company's disclosure policies.

The subpoenas were served earlier this month by a federal grand jury in New York and by the US financial watchdog, the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Toyota can expect support from one quarter. More than a hundred dealers from around the US have travelled to Washington.

One firm told the BBC: "Our owner went to Washington to show support for [Mr] Toyoda and hopefully get the word back out there that we are fixing cars, we are selling cars."

Media focus

Mr Toyoda had initially said that he wished to stay in Japan and planned to send Yoshi Inaba, chief of Toyota's North America operations, to face Congress.

But last week he signalled a change of heart and said he would testify, after the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee formally called for him to do so.

Mr Toyoda will face tough questioning from the committee. He has been criticised for being too slow to react to the safety issues and for the company offering unclear explanations.

His performance will be closely watched. It is not yet known whether he will speak in English or Japanese.

He was criticised by the Japanese media earlier this month for not bowing deeply enough at a news conference arranged for him to say sorry for the recalls, leading to questions about the sincerity of his apology.

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Reuters UK Toyota faces grilling in Congress - 1 hr ago
Times Online Toyota chief to face crash victims' family - 2 hrs ago In 'Crucial Test,' Toyota Chief Will Testify - 3 hrs ago
Sky News Toyota Boss Blames Faults On 'Quick' Growth - 4 hrs ago
Japan Today Toyota promises to build safer cars; defends electronic system - 14 hrs ago

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