House Committee Chairman Asks Toyota President to Testify

Toyota Motor (TM) President Akio Toyoda may have thought he put the issue of testifying before Congress to bed Wednesday when he said that he'd prefer to remain in Japan to focus on leading a panel to improve vehicle quality. But U.S. Rep. Edolphus Towns, the powerful New York Democrat who heads the House Committee on Oversight and Government Affairs, believes Toyoda can shed some light on his company's safety problems, and has invited him to appear at a hearing to "help clarify the situation."

UPDATE: Toyoda will testify before Congress next week on the company's recall of more than 8 million vehicles worldwide, the Detroit News reported Thursday. "I look forward to speaking directly with Congress and the American people," Toyoda said in a statement released Thursday evening, Eastern Standard Time.Earlier, Towns wrote in a letter to Toyoda, as reported by The New York Times, "There appears to be growing public confusion regarding which vehicles may be affected and how people should respond. In short, the public is unsure as to what exactly the problem is, whether it is safe to drive their cars, or what they should do about it."

Toyota has recalled some 8.5 million cars worldwide for defects related to unintended sudden acceleration and braking problems. Dealers have been working around the clock to repair customers' cars as well as those still on dealership lots.

Further compounding Toyota's woes, on Thursday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it has begun a formal investigation into complaints about steering problems in 2009 and 2010 Corolla models. The agency has received 163 complaints about the steering issue, and Toyota may have to recall all of the vehicles to fix them as well.

North America Head Will Testify With "Full Support"

Last month, Towns said his committee was investigating Toyota's recall of millions of its vehicles due to reports of malfunctioning gas pedals. He has scheduled a hearing on the matter for Wednesday to examine the recalls, as well as the federal government's response to Toyota's safety problems.

Speaking at press conference in Tokyo on Wednesday, Toyoda, the 53-year-old grandson of Toyota's founder, said he didn't plan to testify before the committee hearing, saying he would instead send the chief of North American operations, Yoshimi Inaba. "We will give full support to him at the hearing," Toyoda said, according to The Wall Street Journal. "I am not saying that I am never going to the U.S. I am looking at my schedule and preparing."

Toyoda also said his company will begin adding a brake override system, which cuts engine power when the brakes and accelerator are pressed simultaneously, to all future models, and announced the formation of an internal panel to review the company's quality control processes. But the group won't hold its first meeting for six more weeks.

As Sales Suffer, Ford and GM Pile On

Toyota's safety woes have taken a heavy toll on sales. The company reported earlier this month that January sales fell 16% to under 100,000 units, the fewest since 1999, hindered by the 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 plants in Kentucky and Texas for a total of 14 days between late February and early April in response to falling sales of Camrys, Avalons, Tundras and other models, attributable to consumer concerns about the automaker's problems.

Domestic automakers see the ongoing Toyota recalls as an opportunity to reverse the decades-long erosion in their share of the U.S market. Ford Motor (F) and General Motors have begun offering $1,000 rebates to Toyota owners who trade their cars in for new Ford or GM vehicles.
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