Special Coverage

Toyota's Safety Crisis

Toyota Motor Corp. will establish a global quality committee to “really face up” to questions about the safety of its vehicles, the auto maker’s top executive says.

In addition, Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda promises to set up, in the U.S., an “automotive center of quality excellence” led by an American named to the position of “product safety executive.”

A key responsibility of the yet-to-be named executive and the U.S. center will be improving the exchange of information regarding safety concerns, Toyoda says today in Washington before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

The milestone appearance of a Toyota CEO before a U.S. Congressional panel comes as American safety officials probe possible links between Toyota vehicles and some three dozen traffic fatalities, most involving sudden, unintended acceleration.

Among the criticisms leveled at the auto maker is a failure to recognize patterns in the performance of Japanese-market vehicles and relate them to the U.S. market. This failure cost lives, Toyoda was told.

“We should have done a better job in sharing,” says Toshimi Inaba, Toyota Motor North America Inc. president and chief operating officer, who appeared in Washington with Toyoda.

During questioning that grew increasingly aggressive, Paul Kanjorski (D-PA) says “made in Japan” once meant bulletproof quality in the minds of American consumers. “You’ve injured that thought process,” Kanjorski tells the executives.

Toyoda begins the concession with a contrite apology to the family of a California police officer who was killed, along with his wife, daughter and brother-in-law, when a Lexus ES 350 he was driving sped out of control and crashed on a highway.

“I would like to send my prayers again, and I will do everything in my power to ensure that such a tragedy never happens again,” he says, after conceding Toyota’s ambitions overshadowed its fundamental responsibility to ensure the safety of its customers.

“I fear the pace at which we have grown may have been too quick,” Toyoda says “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.

“We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization, and we should sincerely be mindful of that. 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.”

The grandson of Toyota’s founder, Kiichiro Toyoda, Akio Toyoda says: “All the Toyota vehicles bear my name. For me, when the cars are damaged, it is as though I am as well.”

emayne@wardsauto.com