Akio Toyoda Bows Out of U.S. Hearings, Admits Corolla Recall Is Possible

Mr. Toyoda won't be coming to Washington after all. Toyota Motor (TM) President Akio Toyoda doesn't plan to testify before a congressional hearing next week, telling reporters in Tokyo on Wednesday that top Toyota officials in the U.S. can field any questions lawmakers may have. Still, Toyoda said he would consider speaking to members of Congress, if asked."I think there was some misunderstanding about my plans" to visit the U.S., Toyoda said during the press conference, according to Reuters. "I have full confidence in the management of Toyota Motor North America, led by [Yoshimi] Inaba, and I believe he is the best placed to testify," he said. A congressional hearing on the embattled company's safety record is scheduled for Feb. 24.

Toyota has recalled some 8.5 million cars worldwide for defects related to unintended acceleration and braking problems. That number will surely grow if the company decide to recall newer Corolla models for steering problems. U.S. regulators are looking into more than 80 such reports in 2009-10 Corollas. At Wednesday's press conference, Toyoda addressed this issue and said the company is weighing a possible recall of the world's most popular car.

"Still Finalizing the Schedule"

In the wide-ranging address, Toyoda didn't say when he would travel to the U.S. or whether he plans to explain the recall to the nation's consumers, Dow Jones Newswires reported. "We are preparing to go, but as we have to consider the schedules of [the local people concerned], we are still finalizing the schedule," he said.

Toyoda, the 53-year-old grandson of the company's founder, also said Toyota is making progress on repairs to 2010 Prius and other gas-electric hybrid vehicles that have exhibited braking problems when driven on slippery or bumpy roads. Dealers estimate that 70% to 80% of the recalled vehicles will be successfully repaired by the end of the month, he said.

The world's largest carmaker will begin adding a brake override system, which cuts engine power when the brakes and accelerator are pressed at the same time, to all future models, Toyoda said. Further, Toyoda plans to appoint a global quality committee made up of the chiefs of quality from all of the firm's major sales regions, he said. The group is to hold its first meeting March 30.

Rising Death Toll

The press conference came a day after the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced it would compel Toyota to provide documents related to the recall of some 6 million cars in the U.S. for unintended acceleration. In taking the action, the NHTSA said it wanted to learn if Toyota acted "in a timely manner" in issuing the recalls, which involve gas pedals that "stick" or get hung up on floor mats.

If the federal investigation shows Toyota was negligent in issuing timely recalls, the company could face civil penalties of up to $16.4 million. On Monday, the NHTSA said the number of people reported to have killed in accidents involving unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles rose to 34 from 21 in late January. In addition, 22 people have reportedly been injured as a result of the acceleration problems.

Toyota's woes have taken a toll on sales. The company reported earlier this month that January sales fell 16% to under 100,000 units, the fewest since 1999. Sales were hindered by ongoing recalls and a halt in both sales and production of eight models in the U.S. until a fix could be fashioned for some 2.3 million vehicles with sticky accelerators.

On Tuesday, Toyota said it would stop production at two U.S. plants for a total of 14 days between late February and early April to counter falling sales of Camry, Avalon, Tundra and other models, attributable to consumer concern about the problem.
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