Toyota Chief Stays on Message in Face of Tough Questions

BY Carolyn O'Hara  February 24, 2010 at 6:28 PM EDT

Akio Toyoda, president of Toyota, appeared before a House committee Wednesday and faced withering questioning over the automaker’s response to customer complaints over sudden acceleration in its vehicles. Toyoda apologized for the safety missteps and expressed the company’s commitment to restoring customers’ trust.

David Shepardson, Washington bureau chief of The Detroit News, attended the hearing and offered his take on Toyoda’s appearance in an interview with The Rundown.

What was the scene like at the hearing and how did Toyoda do?

DAVID SHEPARDSON, The Detroit News: The scene was just a complete zoo. There were probably 100 camera crews, photographers swarming the Toyota executives as they came in. As Toyoda, the grandson of the automaker’s founder, walked in, one cameraman was shoved into the dais [by the crowd] and nearly injured.

As far as how they are doing — they are certainly very much on message. They are saying they are very sorry, not admitting responsibility for other instances that are being investigated. And in other news today, the FBI raided three Toyota suppliers in Michigan – though that is apparently unrelated and this is a price-fixing issues.

But you know, they haven’t broken a lot of news today. When they have been asked specific questions, they have shied way. They are doing somewhat better than [head of Toyota's U.S. sales Jim] Lentz yesterday.

A few [Congress] members from Midwestern states have been critical – one representative [Mary Kaptur, D-Ohio] called the sudden acceleration problem “sudden death acceleration.”

But the two hurdles the executives have not addressed are the electronics and the [internal Toyota] memo that came out Sunday about saving money from limited recalls.

[Chief of Toyota North America Yoshimi] Inaba said today he didn’t recall the memo or much of the meeting [where it was presented] but said that it didn’t reflect the company. But they haven’t revealed who wrote the memo, or whether there will be any fallout.

Congress is talking about having lots more hearings. The other big thing is that a few members, when they were talking to LaHood, asked, do you need more authority. So I think there will a big push to pass legislation to give NHTSA more teeth and more investigators.

Quite a few lawmakers’ questions were directed at Inaba, who also appeared today with Toyoda. Did he deflect any criticism away from Toyoda?

DAVID SHEPARDSON: He speaks better English. The language issue is definitely part of the hurdle. Inaba is in a tougher spot. Both executives have only been in their jobs for roughly a year. The day of the 2009 memo was only his second day on the job – people jumped to the assumption that he wrote the memo, when he actually came to Washington, D.C., to get a briefing. He called it an orientation.

Do you think Toyoda’s appearance and his comments in any way quiet the firestorm of criticism aimed at Toyota? Will it reassure consumers?

DAVID SHEPARDSON: Today is about just surviving and not digging yourself in any deeper. When they don’t have any definitive answers, the best strategy is to emphasize the positive. They talked about how there will be more transparency, and that they want to launch a quality council in the United States. One of the things Inaba talked about is how they have created ‘swat teams’ that will investigate complaints within 24 hours.

They decided to focus on future – what they will do going forward. They have not had much success in explaining what has happened in the past.

*For the record, Toyota is a NewsHour underwriter.