Toyoda: "Priorities Became Confused"

Toyota President and Chief Executive Officer Akio Toyoda leaves a meeting with Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif, on Capitol Hill in Washington, prior to testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Toyota. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen) AP Photo/Cliff Owen

Updated 6:53 p.m. EST

Toyota CEO Akio Toyoda apologized personally and repeatedly Wednesday to the United States and millions of American Toyota owners for safety lapses that have led to deaths and widespread recalls. Unimpressed lawmakers blistered the world's largest automaker with accusations of greed and insensitivity.

"I'm deeply sorry for any accident that Toyota drivers have experienced," the grandson of the founder of the Japanese auto giant told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He suggested his company's "priorities became confused" in a quest for growth over the past decade at the expense of safety concerns.

Toyoda told the panel he was "absolutely confident" there was no problem with the electronics of Toyota vehicles and repeated the company's stance that sudden accelerations were caused by either a sticking gas pedal or a misplaced floor mat. Some outside experts have suggested electronics may be at the root of the problems.

Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles, mostly to fix problems with floor mats trapping gas pedals or with pedals getting stuck.

After an exchange of pleasantries that included praise from committee members for his willingness to step into a lion's den, Toyoda and a top deputy drew heavy fire from both Democrats and Republicans for the company's slowness in dealing with safety defects in its autos and trucks that led to deaths and eventually the massive recalls.

Amid a phalanx of cameras, Toyoda, dressed in a dark suit, stood before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, raised his right hand and promised to tell the truth.

He arrived on Capitol Hill to an intense reception more in line with a visiting head of state than a foreign industrialist, reports CBS News correspondent Dean Reynolds, who has been following the Toyota saga.

House committee chairman Edolphus Towns welcomed Toyoda and thanked him for volunteering to testify. "We're very impressed with that. It shows your commitment to safety as well," Towns said.

But the grandson of Toyota's founder, but now running an automaker that's recalled more cars than it sold in one year, Toyoda got a taste of the anxiety and anger that's grown along with his cars defects, Reynolds reports.

Lawmakers expressed outrage over Toyota's culture of secrecy, and disbelief that runaway cars were caused only by shoddy pedals or bunched floormats.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., told the Toyota chief, "It's one thing to say you're sorry. It's another when it seems as if time after time there are pronouncements that problems are being addressed and over and over again it seems like they're not being addressed."

He asked why Americans "should pay hard-earned money on a Toyota in hard economic times?"

Toyoda pledged his company would change the way it handles consumer complaints, including seeking greater input from drivers and outside safety experts when considering recalls. Toyota managers will also drive cars under investigation to experience potential problems first hand, he said.

But today Toyoda seemed to have little at his fingertips, Reynolds reports.

He said he'd test-driven the recalled models but had no idea when he heard of their problems. He recalled an urgent meeting with U.S. officials about his products last fall, but could not remember what was said.

He suggested his company's "priorities became confused" in its quest for growth over the past decade at the expense of safety concerns.

"We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization," Toyoda 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."

Appearing with Toyoda was Yoshimi Inaba, head of Toyota Motor North America. "We are committed not only to fixing vehicles on the road and ensuring they are safe, but to making our new vehicles better and even more reliable through a redoubled focus on putting our customers first," Inaba said.

Toyoda told the panel he was "absolutely confident" there was no problem with the electronics of Toyota vehicles and repeated the company's stance that sudden accelerations were caused by either a sticking gas pedal or a misplaced floor mat.

In addition, Toyoda said the company is making changes so brake pedals can override a sudden acceleration and bring a runaway vehicle to a safe stop.

The company said Wednesday it will offer free at-home pickup of vehicles covered by the national safety recall, pay for customers' out-of-pocket transportation costs and provide drivers free rental cars during repairs. The deal - costs to the company weren't specified - was initially announced as part of an agreement between Toyota and New York state.

"I sincerely regret that some people actually encountered accidents in their vehicles," said Toyoda, who gave his opening remarks in heavily accented English but chose to respond to questions in Japanese with a translator.

Toyoda read from prepared remarks that been released the day before.

"My name is on every car. You have my personal commitment that Toyota will work vigorously and unceasingly to restore the trust of our customers," Toyoda said. He delivered his short remarks clearly in somewhat accented English. However, when the questioning session began, he switched to Japanese with the help of a translator.

Asked by Towns if Toyota has divulged all safety information it has to U.S. officials, Toyoda said through the interpreter, "We fully share the information we have with the authorities."

Toyoda's testimony departs somewhat from Japan's culture of formality. In it, Toyoda made a personal appeal for credibility and offered his condolences over the deaths of four San Diego, California, family members in a crash of their Toyota in late August.

Read Akio Toyoda's Prepared Remarks for Congress

"I will do everything in my power to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again," Toyoda told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "My name is on every car. You have my personal commitment that Toyota will work vigorously and unceasingly to restore the trust of our customers."

Some early communication problems emerged when Towns asked whether the automaker would install a brake override system on all vehicles as an additional safety mechanism.

Toyoda, through his translator, explained that there were four factors that contributed to the problems and the company was installing the override system on some vehicles.

"Is that a yes or no?" asked a puzzled Towns. "I'm trying to find out, is that a yes or no?"

Inaba stepped in and told the committee the automaker would install the brake override system on all new models by the end of the year, reiterating a previously made pledge.

Towns, D-N.Y., said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) failed to follow through aggressively on thousands of complaints dating back a decade about sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

NHTSA, which is part of the Transportation Department, "failed the taxpayers and Toyota failed their customers," Towns declared ahead of eagerly awaited testimony by the company's chief executive.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., railed against both Toyota and NHTSA.

"I'm embarrassed for you, sir," Mica said to Toyoda. "I'm embarrassed for my dealers that I've talked to. I'm embarrassed" Americans who work in Toyota plants.

Conversely, Rep. Geoff Davis, R-Ky., whose district includes Toyota's U.S. headquarters in Kentucky transparently lauded the company's "exceptional level of quality," "positive and transformational effect on almost every aspect of American manufacturing," and charitable donations.

Rep. Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., cited "injuries and the damages suffered by innocent Americans ... who like myself have grown up in an atmosphere that we had a great deal of faith in something that was stamped 'Made in Japan."'

"It was of the highest reliability. You injured that thought process in the American public and you will be called upon in our system to pay compensation for that," Kanjorski said.

Kanjorksi asked Toyoda whether the company treated Japanese and American consumers differently, saying he wanted "to hear in my own mind that there hasn't been this difference between the home market and the American market."

Toyoda said the automakers provided "the same degree of care to customers in the United States and the world over."

"Thousands of complaints, multiple investigations, and serial recalls are bad enough. But we now have 39 deaths attributed to sudden acceleration in Toyotas," Towns said. "To give that horrifying number perspective, there were 27 deaths attributed to the famous (Ford) Pinto exploding gas tank of the 1970s."

Towns asked Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood a question on behalf all of those Toyota owners and drivers: Are the cars safe to drive?

"We have listed every Toyota that's up for recall" on the Transportation Department Web site, LaHood said. "I want anybody who has one of those cars to take it to the dealer and make sure it gets fixed."

LaHood said those vehicles on the recall list posted on his department's Web site "are not safe."

Toyoda was the second witness to appear before the panel and was not in the room during opening statements by members and LaHood's testimony.

Moments before Toyoda's arrival, dozens of photographers sat on the floor in front of the witness table, waiting for the automotive scion. About a dozen TV cameramen were ushered in by an aide, their cameras almost colliding with each other as they rushed to get good spots. "Easy, easy! Slow it down," someone called out.

An apology may not be enough for the feisty panel of lawmakers on the 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's appearance comes as Japan opened its own investigation into unintended acceleration with Toyota and other vehicles in that country.

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.

Still, Toyoda is familiar with the United States and its corporate culture. He received his MBA in 1982 at Babson College in Massachusetts and spent time in California as vice president of a joint venture between Toyota and General Motors Corp.

"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 is broadcast around the world.

More on Toyota at CBSNews.com:

Ray LaHood's Bottom Line on Toyota
LaHood: Recalled Toyotas "Not Safe"
Issa: Government Shares Blame for Toyota Mess
Issa: Japanese Open Their Own Toyota Probe
CBS News Exclusive: Toyota Study Disputes Acceleration Problem
Toyota's Recall Success No Sure Bet
Toyota Has Donated to Investigating Reps.
Toyota Victim Recounts "Near Death" Trip
Issa: Toyota Hearings Will Be Fair
Are Electromagnetic Fields to Blame?

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."

Toyota went into business in 1937 after launching production of the first "Made in Japan" passenger car the previous year. The Toyoda name was scrapped for "Toyota" because in Japanese, the latter requires eight strokes to write - 8 is a good number in Japanese culture for its "infinity" meaning.

Toyoda, who speaks halting English, appeared with a translator by his side, as well as Inaba, president and CEO of Toyota Motor North America Inc., who is fluent in English.

David Strickland, the new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, had been on the list of witnesses and was set to testify along with LaHood but was removed right before the hearing started.

Republicans pressed LaHood about why Strickland was dropped from the hearing witness list, saying they may call him for another hearing. LaHood said Strickland has held his post for only a short time and that LaHood would answer for the safety agency.

"I am not going have our NHTSA administrator, who has been on the job 40 days, appear. I am taking responsibility for this," LaHood said.

Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce Committee requested an investigation by the Transportation Department's inspector general of NHTSA's handling of the Toyota recalls. The committee wants the IG to expand the review to include industry-wide complaints and reports collected by the agency on unintended acceleration or brake failure, compliance with recent auto safety laws and government ethics at NHTSA.

Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the leading Republican on the House oversight panel, waved a gas pedal before LaHood and complained that Toyota knew about problems of sticking gas pedals and improperly placed floor mats years ago and made some fixes on models sold in Japan but delayed addressing the problems on other cars, including some of its most popular models sold in the U.S., until just recently.

Issa also 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.

"There's no question that they [the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration] are guilty of welcoming in its revolving door former [auto company] employees and case after case abandoning investigations they already decided had some merit," Issa said.

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.

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." The U.S. government owns a majority stake in General Motors and a smaller stake in Chrysler as a result of last year's bailouts.
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