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LaHood on Toyota: ‘I Think That They Were Safety Deaf’

February 24, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Toyota President Akio Toyoda faced tough questions Wednesday from a key House committee about his company's response to safety issues with its vehicles. Gwen Ifill talks to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about the government's role in ensuring vehicle safety.
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GWEN IFILL: The president of Toyota made an unprecedented appearance before a U.S. congressional committee today. He delivered an apology for the problems that forced extensive recalls of the company’s cars, and promised a course correction.

“NewsHour” correspondent Kwame Holman begins our coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: Amid a crush of cameras, the grandson of Toyota’s founder made his way to the witness table before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He said he takes full responsibility for all that has happened.

AKIO TOYODA, president & CEO, Toyota: I am the grandson of the founder. And all the Toyota vehicles bear my name. For me, when the cars are damaged, it is as though I am as well. I, more than anyone, wish for Toyota’s cars to be safe and for our customers to feel safe when they use our vehicles.

KWAME HOLMAN: Toyota has recalled eight million vehicles worldwide for uncontrolled acceleration and another 400,000-plus for brake issues.

AKIO TOYODA: We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organizations. And we should sincerely be mindful of that. And I am deeply sorry for any accident that Toyota drivers have experienced.

KWAME HOLMAN: Toyoda initially was reluctant to come to Washington, but last week he acceded to pressure to appear. And he made this promise to the committee.

AKIO TOYODA: You have my personal commitment that Toyota will work vigorously and unceasingly to restore the trust of our customers.

KWAME HOLMAN: Lawmakers had already laid into Toyoda before he arrived. The committee’s chairman, Edolphus Towns, said the company kept U.S. safety regulators at bay, especially NHTSA, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration`.

REP. EDOLPHUS TOWNS, D-N.Y.: Toyota’s own internal documents indicate that a premium was placed on delaying or closing NHTSA investigations, delaying new safety rules, and blocking the discovery of safety defects. In fact, Toyota officials bragged about saving $100 million by preventing NHTSA from finding a defect related to sudden acceleration.

KWAME HOLMAN: Another top Toyota executive, Yoshimi Inaba, tried to explain those internal documents to Republican John Mica of Florida.

YOSHIMI INABA, president & CEO, Toyota North America: I must say to you that it is so inconsistent with the guiding principle of Toyota and my feeling is. And, therefore…

REP. JOHN MICA, R-Fla.: It’s — just, to me, it is unbelievable.

YOSHIMI INABA: Yes, I feel the same.

REP. JOHN MICA: Finally, Mr. Toyoda, you are in charge of the company, and have that responsibility. Can you assure the committee that this is not the approach, this will not be the approach of Toyota now or in the future?

YOSHIMI INABA: Because now I am getting more familiar, I am president of that company, I am going to rectify that, if there is any…

REP. EDOLPHUS TOWNS: The gentleman’s…

KWAME HOLMAN: Toyoda’s testimony here today was an effort to salvage his company’s once-sterling reputation. He took the helm of the family business just last year, amid the global financial crisis. Now he’s facing mounting and widening investigations, both in Japan and the United States.

Yesterday, the head of Toyota USA acknowledged the floor mat and gas pedal recalls may not fix all the unintended acceleration problems. And, today, Akio Toyoda was asked whether electronic systems may be to blame.

AKIO TOYODA (through translator): With respect to the electronic throttle control system, the system itself has been designed based upon the philosophy of safety first. And, therefore, whenever any abnormality or anomaly is detected, fuel supply is instantly cut off. However, no malfunction or problems were identified based upon the tests conducted internally within Toyota.

KWAME HOLMAN: Earlier, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood promised to investigate every possible cause. And he said he considers all cars on the recall list as not safe.

Under questioning, LaHood insisted the federal stake in Detroit automakers doesn’t create a conflict of interests.

REP. JEFF FLAKE, R-Ariz.: I don’t think it’s out of line to question and — and at least caution that the Department of Transportation and NHTSA be extremely careful in how they accept and deal with complaints that come in, to ensure that — that government isn’t taking sides in an area where we have a big investment.

RAY LAHOOD, U.S. secretary of transportation: If you look at any speech I gave last year, it was on safety.

REP. JEFF FLAKE: No, I…

RAY LAHOOD: Whether it was in planes trains, or automobiles, it was on safety. That is our obligation to the public.

And I don’t — I don’t, you know, buy this argument that because, you know, the government owns 60 percent of GM that we’re going to turn a blind eye to that. That is nonsense. We would never do that. It will never happen under my watch. I guarantee you that.

KWAME HOLMAN: In the meantime, Japanese officials announced plans today to open their own investigation into acceleration problems in Toyotas and other vehicles.

GWEN IFILL: For the record, Toyota is an underwriter of the “NewsHour.”

We take a closer look now at the government’s role in all of this.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood spent the better part of the day testifying on Capitol Hill.

And he joins me now.

Welcome, Mr. Secretary.

RAY LAHOOD: Nice to be here.

GWEN IFILL: When did Toyota and when, in fact, did you know about the problems that led to the safety recall?

RAY LAHOOD: Well, we — we knew that there were problems with the — with the floor mats several years ago, prior to me becoming secretary. And we have alerted drivers and owners of these Toyotas to this for some time.

But we found that they really weren’t paying much attention to it, so we asked Toyota to have another recall. But, when it came, really, to the idea that it wasn’t just the floor mat, it was a sticky pedal, that’s when our people went to Japan — well, we went to North America Toyota.

We said, look it, this is serious stuff. You need to start taking this seriously. We need another — we need a recall here.

And that’s when we really felt that we needed to go to Japan and talk directly with the people in Japan about this.

GWEN IFILL: Normally, how do companies — how are companies like Toyota, but even domestic car companies, how are they held accountable? How are they accountable? How can they just say, oh, we won’t do anything about this until you come to Japan and demand that we do something?

RAY LAHOOD: Well, look, we have subpoena power to get all kinds of information. We also have the authority to make them do the recall.

We ask them to do it voluntarily, and, if they won’t, then, you know, we require them to do that. They have to come to us with a fix. We don’t necessarily sign off on it. But then the recall begins. And when we discovered that people really weren’t paying attention to it, we went back and told them they had to do — issue more notices to the owners of these cars.

GWEN IFILL: You said today that you get about 30,000 complaints a year for various things.

RAY LAHOOD: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: How many of those rise to the level of what we’re seeing now?

RAY LAHOOD: Well, in this instance — well, let me just put it this way. Over the last three years, 23 million cars have been recalled, and the majority of them weren’t Toyotas. So, you know, the notion that, somehow, we’re just picking on Toyota is not true.

Over the last three years, 23 million cars have been recalled for some kind of a safety problem.

GWEN IFILL: And are there other defect investigations under way, not only involving Toyota, but other companies as well?

RAY LAHOOD: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: How many involving Toyota?

RAY LAHOOD: Well, right now, there are three recalls and two investigations going on.

GWEN IFILL: And do we know when we’re supposed to hear what the results of those are? Are there more recalls likely to happen in the next few weeks…

RAY LAHOOD: One of the things, we don’t really have an investigation on, but I have taken my cues from Congress and others that have complained about the electronics. People believe there is an electronics problem.

GWEN IFILL: Right.

RAY LAHOOD: And we’re going to really do a comprehensive review to see if there is, because, if there is, then we — we need to get Toyota to address that. So, that’s — that’s more of a review, rather than an investigation, right now.

GWEN IFILL: Mm-hmm.

You said today that Toyota was safety-deaf. Was NHTSA safety-deaf at any point as well?

RAY LAHOOD: Absolutely not.

Every complaint, all 30,000 complaints that we get every year, we pay attention to them. Some come from people that drive cars. Some come from others. Some come from automotive organizations. We take every one seriously. And when we really see a pattern, we immediately begin the review, and, ultimately, turn into an investigation and a recall.

GWEN IFILL: That’s what’s happened on your watch. Has — can you guarantee that’s what’s happened before you took over this job 13 months ago?

RAY LAHOOD: I — you know, look it, I’m forward-looking. And I think, as I said, if anybody has ever seen any of my speeches for the last 13 months, it’s on safety.

We owe that to the people — trains, planes, and automobiles. We just owe it to them. When people get in a car or a plane or a train, they — they want to know it’s going to be safe.

GWEN IFILL: You’re forward-looking, but a lot of investigation has been about what has happened up until now…

RAY LAHOOD: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GWEN IFILL: … including the people who lost their lives in these kinds of accidents.

So, is there any way to know whether there’s something that the government should have been doing, some lessons that you can learn from the way the government handled this before?

RAY LAHOOD: Base on the information that we had from Toyota, I think our people did a good job. But we just released and asked for a huge amount of information going back to ’04, in case they hadn’t provided that. That — that would be a — that would be a problem. It really would be.

And based on the information that our people had, I think they did a good job.

GWEN IFILL: Some lawmakers today asked you questions about the so-called revolving door, the members of — members of NHTSA, people who had worked for NHTSA who went to work for the company and still are working for the company.

RAY LAHOOD: Right. Right.

GWEN IFILL: Do you think that affected any way — in any way the ability to police Toyota effectively?

RAY LAHOOD: We looked back on that. There’s no violation of law. The laws were followed for exiting and going to work for a company.

I think that law needs to be tightened up. I really do. I think the optic of that is not good. I don’t like the optic of it. I really don’t. I don’t like the optic that somebody thinks we have a — kind of a sweetheart deal with former employees with Toyota. And I’m going to work with Congress on that.

GWEN IFILL: The optic is bad, no laws were broken, but you don’t know whether there’s any connection actually between the presence of these folks…

RAY LAHOOD: I don’t — we don’t believe there’s any connection, but I told the members of Congress, if they do, we will — there will have to be an investigation by the I.G.

GWEN IFILL: Based on what you now know, the thousands of documents which have surfaced, the investigation we saw today, the testimony we have seen, do you believe that Toyota misled the public?

RAY LAHOOD: I think that they were safety-deaf. I think they should have been listening. I think Toyota, in Tokyo, should have been listening to their North American people that they hire, who are very good people, very professional people.

I don’t know, until we went there and told them how serious it was — I got on the phone with Mr. Toyoda, and I said, you need to take this seriously. I think, once that happened, they finally got it. I think Mr. Toyoda, being in America today, being in Washington today, apologizing, is a very good first step. But they have a long way to go to gain credibility again with — with car buyers.

GWEN IFILL: So, what’s the next step? For instance, there was some conversation today about black boxes, or the equivalent of black boxes, that exist in cars which — Toyotas which are on the roads in the United States, and the degree to which people like NHTSA can’t get access to the information there.

RAY LAHOOD: I think, first of all, we have to make sure everybody who has a car that’s on that list takes it to the dealer and gets it fixed under the recall.

I think, secondly, we need to look at the electronics. Nobody really knows for sure if that is in effect. And I think Toyota really needs to persuade the public now, the people that have bought their cars in the past their number-one priority is safety.

That’s our number-one priority, but people have to be convinced it’s Toyota’s. And I think they took a very good first step today. But I — I think there are other things they need to do.

With respect to equipment and whether it should be put on or not, we’re going to look at that. And we’re going to see if that’s something that we should be requiring of all car manufacturers.

GWEN IFILL: How do — how do we as consumers know that this sort of thing isn’t happening with other manufacturers as well, whether they be foreign automakers or domestic?

RAY LAHOOD: I think they have to put a certain amount of faith and trust in those of us that work in these safety organizations. I hope people will do that.

I think we have a very good track record of taking cars off the road that are not working purposely, and really looking out for the safety of the — of the public. And I don’t — I can’t see anything where anybody could accuse, on our watch, the fact that we haven’t taken these safety issues very, very seriously.

GWEN IFILL: There’s that term again, “on our watch.”

RAY LAHOOD: I — I — look it, I think this. I think that Mr. Toyoda wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Ray LaHood calling him and our people going to Japan and telling them this is serious. And I hope that people trust that that is our priority.

GWEN IFILL: And are there penalties likely to be attached if, in the end, it turns out that Toyota willfully or — or inadvertently misled investigators, misled consumers, misled its own dealers?

RAY LAHOOD: Yes. I mean, we are looking at that. We are looking at civil penalties against Toyota if we find that they misled us, which in turn misled the people that drive their cars.

GWEN IFILL: Ray LaHood, secretary of transportation, thank you very much for joining us.

RAY LAHOOD: Thank you, Gwen. Thank you very much.