Toyota boss to appear before US congress

Toyota president Akio Toyoda will attend a US government hearing next week about the car maker’s massive recalls.

Toyota president Akio Toyoda will attend a US government hearing next week about the car maker’s massive recalls.

He will come face to face with US politicians following criticism that he had responded too slowly to the company’s safety crisis.

Mr Toyoda, the grandson of the Japanese car giant’s founder, said he looked forward to “speaking directly with Congress and the American people”.

The executive accepted the invitation from the chairman of the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee as the government opened a fresh investigation into Corolla models over potential steering problems.

Toyota has faced an expanding safety crisis during the past four months with the worldwide recall of around 8.5 million vehicles over questions involving accelerator pedals, accelerators getting jammed in floor mats and brakes on various vehicles.

Democratic Rep Edolphus Towns, the committee chairman, told Mr Toyoda in his invitation that motorists were “unsure as to what exactly the problem is, whether it is safe to drive their cars, or what they should do about it”.

Mr Towns and the committee’s top Republican, Darrell Issa, said later that Mr Toyoda’s testimony “will be helpful in understanding the actions Toyota is taking to ensure the safety of American drivers”.

Mr Toyoda had said previously that he did not plan to attend the hearings scheduled to start in Congress next week. He had told reporters in Japan, however, that he would consider appearing if invited.

His U-turn came as the US Transportation Department formally opened a preliminary investigation into 487,000 Toyota Corolla and Corolla Matrix cars from the 2009-2010 model years over concerns about steering problems at highway speeds.

The government has received 168 complaints and reports of 11 injuries and eight crashes of Corollas and Matrixes with electric power steering.

The Corolla investigation was expected after Toyota said it was looking into complaints of power steering difficulties with the vehicle and considering a recall as one option.

Reports of deaths in the US connected to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles have surged in recent weeks, with the toll of deaths allegedly attributed to the problem reaching 34 since 2000, according to new consumer data gathered by the government.

Mr Toyoda is the latest embattled car executive to testify before Congress, more than a year after the leaders of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford sought support for the US car industry and were scolded for travelling to the hearings in private jets.

About 10 years ago the leaders of Ford and tyre maker Bridgestone/Firestone were grilled by Congress after crashes involving exploding tyres led to more than 250 traffic deaths.

By issuing the invitation, the committee had essentially forced Mr Toyoda to testify or face a subpoena. Mr Issa had urged him to meet politicians and said if necessary, the committee should compel the executive’s testimony.

Bill George, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School and a former chairman and chief executive of Medtronic, said Mr Toyoda was “bowing to the pressure” by testifying and had made a “grievous error in ducking public acknowledgement of the mistakes”.

He said Mr Toyoda needed to offer “a sincere apology and a concrete set of corrective actions, not ducking and weaving and saying this is not a problem”.

In Japan and in the US, Toyota has been criticised for a tepid response to the recalls and Mr Toyoda has been accused of being largely invisible as the recalls escalated.

He has held three news conferences in recent weeks, apologising repeatedly for the recalls and promising changes.

Toyota has said it will create an outside review of company operations, do a better job of responding to customer complaints and improve communication with US officials. Mr Toyoda has said he plans to travel to the United States soon to meet workers and dealers, but the company has not yet released his schedule.

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