Members of the US Congress tore into the president of Toyota last night, telling him he had put profit before American lives and demanding that the Japanese company ends what they called a culture of secrecy over safety.
Akio Toyoda, grandson of the carmaker's founder, made an extraordinary public apology before a House of Representatives committee, and said Toyota had expanded so fast that it had lost sight of consumers.
Mr Toyoda had flown to Washington DC to try to diffuse a growing public relations disaster which began last September amid reports that accelerators in some best-selling Toyota cars were malfunctioning and causing fatal crashes. With 39 deaths now linked to so-called "unintended acceleration", and 8.5 million Toyota vehicles recalled for repair worldwide, his appearance promised to be an unprecedented and humbling piece of theatre for a foreign corporate leader.
"If the Camry and the Prius were aeroplanes, they would have been grounded," said Edolphus Towns, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee. Referring to thousands of documents subpoenaed ahead of the hearing, he added: "There is striking evidence that the company was at times more concerned with profit than with customer safety."
The hearing gave lawmakers in the world's biggest car market an opportunity to reflect growing public and media concern about the safety of Toyota vehicles, amid continuing questions about whether the company fully understands the reasons for its accelerator malfunctions.
Mr Toyoda blamed slipping floor mats and sticking pedals, rather than the possibility of electronic malfunctions that US traffic safety regulators are examining. It also gave Congressmen the chance to do down Toyota – the international upstart that, over a generation, has displaced Detroit-based rivals such as General Motors and Ford at the top of safety league tables and in popularity. "This system of quality control that Toyota represents to be at the heart of their corporation, doesn't reflect reality," said Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. His colleague Eleanor Holmes Norton, representing Washington DC, criticised a "Toyota culture which teaches that these are issues that should not be aired in public".
Mr Toyoda, reading a prepared statement in English, apologised to the victims of fatal crashes, including the Saylor family which lost four members in the crash in San Diego last summer that triggered the start of the recalls. He also promised to overhaul Toyota's culture and management.
"I myself, as well as Toyota, am not perfect. At times, we do find defects. But in such situations, we always stop, strive to understand the problem, and make changes to improve further."
Ray LaHood, the Secretary of Transportation, said Toyota had become "safety deaf", but Mr Toyoda's decision to travel to the US had been a "game-changer". He said his department would continue to push Toyota to fully understand the causes of unintended acceleration. "We will get in the weeds on this to find out if electronics are part of the problem," the Republican added. "We are going to work until every Toyota is safe to drive."
Toyota has stepped up efforts to repair its battered reputation, continuing with newspaper advertisements that declare the company is "pulling together to put things right", and agreeing a deal to help drivers in New York state that could become a template for the rest of America.
The company agreed with the state's attorney-general, Andrew Cuomo, that it would pick up and return vehicles and provide replacements for anyone who was "unwilling" to drive their Toyota to a dealer for repair.
"The loss of a vehicle is a significant economic loss," Mr Cuomo said at a press conference where he stood in front of a Camry, one of 19 Toyotas operated by his office that had to be recalled. "We are interested in providing short-term practical relief."Reuse content