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Congress testy as Toyoda testifies

US panel's hearing on Japan carmaker's woes not as hostile as predicted but some appeared to be playing to the gallery.

Last modified: 25 Feb 2010 03:50
Photo by AFP

It was a rare sight indeed at the US congress on Wednesday.
 
The head of an overseas corporation being grilled by another country's legislators over his firm's mistakes.
 
Akio Toyoda came to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee here on Capitol Hill in Washington DC to say he's sorry for the deaths and injuries caused by Toyota's faulty vehicles and to pledge change.
 
"As you well know, I am the grandson of the founder, and 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."
 
He said he feared the speed with which Toyota had pursued the growth of its businesses was greater than the speed at which it was able to develop its people and organisation.
 
"I would like to point out here that Toyota's priority has traditionally been the following: First; Safety, Second; Quality, and Third; Volume. These two priorities became confused and we were not able to stop, think, and make improvements as much as we were able to before, and our basic stance to listen to customers' voices to make better products has weakened somewhat."
 
Alongside Akio Toyoda was the president and CEO of Toyota North America. The firm's already admitted it lost sight of the customer and Yoshimi Inaba said Toyota intends to put customers first once again.
 
"We now understand that we must think more from a customer first perspective, rather than a technical perspective in investigating complaints and that we must communicate faster, better and more effectively with our customers and our regulators."
 
The hearing wasn't as hostile in tone as many had predicted but some questioners couldn't resist becoming a bit testy. 

I think this was partly in anger at Toyota and perhaps in a show to their constituents who they'll be facing in crucial midterm congressional elections later this year.
 
For example, Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney from New York asked whether the Japanese giant might consider paying the medical and funeral costs of people and families affected by out of control speeding or non-braking Toyota's.
 
Meanwhile, Republican Congressman John Mica from Florida said: "It's a very embarrassing day for Toyota to have the son (he meant grandson of course - doesn't he watch my reports?) of the founder of Toyota here as the chief officer to come before the United States Congress, I'm embarrassed for you, sir!"
 
And Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat from Ohio, who was so dismayed at what he took to be an unsatisfactory answer that he shot back: "I'm trying to be polite but you're not answering my question and I'd appreciate a straight answer!"
 
Also on trial here, the National Highway and Traffic Safety Authority - NHTSA – it's accused of looking the other way in the early stages of the Toyota vehicle crisis.
 
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood appeared to have a little dig at Toyota when he said NHTSA (pronounced NITSA) gets 30,000 complaints a year and takes all of them seriously - something they did with regard to Toyota too.
 
"We've had some issues and that's the reason why when the acting administrator Ron Medford came to me and said I need to go to Japan to talk to these people directly, I said get on a plane tonight, and he went and he talked directly with the people in Japan, and I picked up the phone and I talked personally to Mr Toyoda and I told him these are serious matters, they need to be taken seriously."
 
But Mr LaHood did concede the fact Akio Toyoda flew all the way from Tokyo to Washington to attend Wednesday's hearing seems to signal fresh thinking about the problems at Toyota HQ.
 
"It's a game changer," he said.
 
The truth is this hearing may have been historic but what happens next is not immediately clear.
 
At the heart of the matter is what causes the sudden acceleration and braking problems with Toyota vehicles. 
 
Many here on Capitol Hill think it's an electronic or software problem. 
 
Toyota says it's not, so until they can sort that one out, the questions are likely to keep coming for the world's biggest automaker.