Akio Toyoda, scion of the beleaguered Toyota empire, apologized 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, said in prepared testimony that 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," he said. "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 was expected to testify. David Strickland, the new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a unit of the Transportation Department, had been on the list of witnesses but was removed right before the hearing started. Committee aides said LaHood was in a better position to speak on safety issues.
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.
Associated Press staff writers Alan Fram and Sonya Ross contributed to this report.
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