WASHINGTON — Apologizing for Toyota's missteps in dealing with defects blamed in dozens of fatalities, a contrite Akio Toyoda told members of Congress his company was "not perfect" and that its rapid growth had "confused" the priority it places on safety.
"Quite frankly, I fear the pace at which we have grown may have been too quick," the president of Toyota Motor Corp. said during more than three hours of testimony. "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."
Toyoda, grandson of the company founder, had initially planned to skip Wednesday's appearance before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He changed his mind amid escalating investigations into Toyota's handling of the sudden acceleration problem, including probes by Congress, a New York federal grand jury, the Transportation Department and the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
Toyoda told the House panel he became aware of the sudden acceleration issue late last year, despite the company's 2007 recall in the U.S. market to replace floor mats that could cause sudden acceleration in two models.
Members of the House committee raised a wide range of broader concerns about the company's secrecy, its practice of making all of its safety decisions in Japan and the company's insular corporate culture.
And Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in testimony that preceded Toyoda's that the company was "safety deaf," a problem he laid on the company's failure to communicate adequately between its headquarters in Japan and its corporate staff in North America.
The company wasn't taking the current safety problems seriously, LaHood noted, until he dispatched a senior aide to Japan late last year.
But LaHood came under tough questioning as well, and was pointedly asked if his department simply did the auto industry's bidding. "I have not been a lapdog for anybody and neither are our employees," LaHood shot back.
The hearing took place in a committee room jammed with 28 House members and their nearly 50 staffers, along with dozens more from the news media and Toyota itself.