Toyoto CEO to take safety to ‘next level’

Fresh from a gruelling appearance before Congress, Toyota’s chief executive met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Thursday and pledged “to advance safety to the next level.”

A flat-panel TV shows a news program on Toyota President Akio Toyoda testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform about Toyota on Capitol Hill

A flat-panel TV shows a news program on Toyota President Akio Toyoda testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform about Toyota on Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON — Fresh from a gruelling appearance before Congress, Toyota’s chief executive met with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Thursday and pledged “to advance safety to the next level.”

Akio Toyoda then headed to Georgetown, Ky., to visit Toyota’s largest North American manufacturing plant, which churns out the popular Camry.

The world’s biggest automaker is facing legal and public relations problems on several fronts: a criminal investigation by federal prosecutors in New York; a probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission; and anger by U.S. dealerships in line to repair potentially millions of recalled vehicles.

Toyota is also offering customers new reimbursements for rental cars and other expenses.

Company lawyers are bracing for large numbers of death and injury lawsuits. The Senate commerce, science and transportation committee plans a hearing Tuesday.

Transportation officials said Toyoda’s meeting with LaHood focused on the importance of safety and consumer protection.

Toyoda “promised to take the initiative to advance safety to the next level,” according to a Toyota statement.

Back-to-back congressional hearings this week failed to clear up Toyota’s slow actions in dealing with the defects and provide guarantees that the problems that led to sudden, unintended accelerations will be fixed.

At the hearings, Toyoda repeated the company’s insistence that there was no link between the problems involving unintended acceleration and the cars’ electronic systems.

Many drivers filing complaints with Toyota and the U.S. government say their acceleration problems had nothing to do with floor mat interference or sticky gas pedals — the culprits the company is pointing to. Outside experts have suggested electronic problems.

House legislators tore into Toyoda, the grandson of the company’s founder.

“I am embarrassed for you, sir,” Representative John Mica (R-Fla.) said as he brandished an internal Toyota document showing the automaker estimated it saved $100 million by avoiding a broad recall over unintended acceleration in 2007.

The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is seeking records on Toyota’s recalls and is conducting its own review on whether electronics were behind the vehicle defects. NHTSA also continues to look into steering complaints from drivers of the popular Corolla model.

Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles worldwide, including some 270,000 in Canada as well as the more than six million in the United States.

Toyota Canada has recalled vehicles to fix the sticky accelerator problem, but has also issued a string of voluntary fixes over the last month in an attempt to boost consumer confidence and show it’s doing everything it can to ensure its vehicles are safe.

Earlier this week, it said it offering to install new brake override software on more of its vehicles, including its 2005-10 Tacoma trucks, the 2009-10 Venza crossover and the 2008-10 Sequoia sport utility vehicle. Toyota is already installing the software on the 2007-10 Camry, the 2005-10 Avalon and several models of Lexus.

The system software — which automatically reduces the engine’s power when the brake and accelerator pedals are depressed at the same time “under certain driving conditions” — will be included on most new Toyota and Lexus models sold in Canada by the end of this year.

Transport Canada said it has received 25 complaints relating to the reports of inconsistent brake feel in Prius models and 33 relating to the models that were involved in the pedal recall since 2005. Of the latter, two relate to fatalities but the government department has not confirmed whether the deaths were caused by the sticky pedal or another unrelated issue.

The sticky pedal problem is the subject of two class-action lawsuits in Canada.

Toyota has two assembly plants in southern Ontario that employ some 6,500 people. Toyota Canada builds the Corolla, the Matrix and the Lexus RX350 in Cambridge and the RAV4 sport utility vehicle in Woodstock.

In Japan, Toyoda’s testimony in Washington was lauded. A crisis management expert at Kyodo Public Relations Co., Ryoichi Shinozaki, said Toyoda performed fine by Japanese standards. But Shinozaki said the company’s problems were deepening.

“The hearing is over, but the crisis is only getting more serious,” he said.

It may be a while before car buyers are convinced that Toyota really makes safe cars.

Toyota’s January sales fell 16 per cent even as most other automakers rebounded from last year’s dismal results. Analyst Koji Endo of Advanced Research Japan in Tokyo said he expected February sales, due out next week, to be down 30 to 40 per cent. Toyota’s sales woes well could continue beyond that.

“It will take some time to feel the full effect of this,” he said.