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Top Toyota executive apologises to US Congress

Video by Rebecca BOWRING

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2010-02-24

Toyota’s top executive James Lentz apologised Tuesday for the company’s slow response to the safety problems which have dogged the Japanese auto making giant in remarks prepared for delivery to a key US government panel.

AFP - Embattled Toyota's top US executive denied Tuesday that electronic flaws in the auto giant's vehicles were behind deadly defects but apologized for the company's slow response to the safety problems.

"Put simply, it has taken us too long to come to grips with a rare but serious set of safety issues, despite all of our good faith efforts," James Lentz said in remarks prepared for delivery to a key US House panel.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee opened Congress's first hearing on Toyota's recall of millions of vehicles over sudden accleration problems that have been blamed for about 30 US deaths.

The hearings come amid accusations that the Japanese automaker misled the public and failed to adequately investigate dangerous defects in various models of its vehicles.

Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA president, admitted in his prepared comments that the company had erred in its handling of two causes of sudden acceleration.

"We acknowledge these mistakes, we apologize for them and we have learned from them," he said.

But Lentz stuck to Toyota's position that the sudden acceleration problems were not tied to defects in the automaker's electronic throttle systems, citing "extensive testing" that "never found a malfunction" of that sort.

US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said regulators at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had no evidence such flaws were conclusively to blame but were doing "a thorough review of that subject to ensure safety."

"We will continue to investigate all possible causes of unintended acceleration. While the recalls are important steps in that direction, we don’t maintain that they answer every question about that issue," said LaHood.

And a key committee member, Democratic Representative Bart Stupak, accused Toyota Monday of relying on a "flawed" study to dismiss the electronic problem and "misleading" the public about the efficacy of mechanical fixes.

Toyota president Akio Toyoda, set to appear Wednesday before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, promised Tuesday that the firm founded by his grandfather would do "much better" on safety.

"All Toyota vehicles bear my name. When cars are damaged, it is as though I am as well," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

Toyota, which dethroned General Motors as the world's top automaker, is fighting to maintain its previously stellar reputation for quality, safety and reliability, following the recall of more than eight million vehicles globally.

The beleaguered company also faces a host of US lawsuits linking its defects to more than 30 deaths in class action suits that could cost it billions of dollars.

Lentz said in his prepared testimony that Toyota's look into sudden acceleration had failed to take into account "the way customers used our vehicles" and "failed to promptly analyze and respond" to technical data on sticking pedals.

"We now understand that we must think differently when investigating complaints and communicate faster, better and more effectively with our customers and our regulators."

This week's hearings come as the auto giant answers a request for documents from a US federal grand jury investigating whether there is sufficient evidence for criminal charges related to problems with Toyota's brakes and accelerators.

Meanwhile, internal documents subpoenaed by a congressional panel showed that executives at the automaker boasted internally last year that its Washington lobbying had cut the cost of product recalls by 100 million dollars.

Lawmakers have insisted that Toyota should not use the various lawsuits as a shield when faced with tough questions.

"If you haven't done anything wrong, then you have nothing to hide, and there is no reason why Toyota should not be able to provide straightforward and honest testimony," said US Representative Darrell Issa of California, the top Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

US employees of Toyota -- the company claims some 200,000 jobs directly and indirectly tied to its operations in the United States -- flooded Capitol Hill on Tuesday, urging lawmakers to give the Japanese auto giant what one called "a fair shake."

Date created : 2010-02-23

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