WASHINGTON — The chairman of a House panel investigating Toyota's massive recalls said Thursday the company's president should testify next week, asserting that American motorists must know "whether it is safe to drive their cars."
AkioToyoda, the grandson of the Japanese automaker's founder, had said previously that he did not plan to attend a series of hearings scheduled to start on Capitol Hill next week. But he had told reporters in Japan earlier that he would consider appearing if invited.
Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote Toyoda that the committee wants him to "clarify" how the car manufacturer is addressing a widening recall crisis. The controversy over safety issues has burgeoned over the past four months with the recall of roughly 8.5 million vehicles.
"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," Towns wrote in a letter to Toyoda, in the wake of safety questions involving gas pedals, floor sets and brakes on various Toyota products.
Reports of deaths in the U.S. connected to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles have surged in recent weeks, with the toll of deaths allegedly attributed to the problem reaching 34 since 2000, according to new consumer data gathered by the U.S. government.
Toyota, the world's No. 1 automaker, did not immediately say whether the executive would testify. Cindy Knight, a Toyota spokeswoman, said the company was aware of the request but had not yet received a response from its Japanese headquarters because of "time zone differences."
Invitations to congressional hearings are rarely rejected by those asked to appear. The committee's top Republican, Darrell Issa of California, has urged Toyoda to meet with lawmakers and has said that if necessary, the committee should compel the executive's testimony by subpoena.
In Japan and in the United States, Toyota Motor Corp. has been criticized for being too slow to respond to the recall crisis and the company's top executive has been accused of being largely invisible as the recalls escalated. But he has held three news conferences in recent weeks, apologized repeatedly for the recalls and promised reforms.
Toyota has said it will create an outside review of company operations, do a better job of responding to customer complaints and improve communication with federal officials. Toyoda has said he plans to travel to the U.S. soon to meet with workers and dealers but the company has not yet released his schedule.
The House committee invitation could bring another embattled auto executive to Congress, more than a year after the leaders of General Motors, Chrysler and Ford sought support for the U.S. auto industry and were scolded for traveling to the hearings in private jets. About a decade ago, the leaders of Ford and tiremaker Bridgestone/Firestone were grilled by Congress after crashes involving exploding tires led to more than 250 traffic deaths.
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management, said Toyoda should "absolutely" testify before Congress because it would give the company a prime opportunity to take responsibility for the problems. "He has to be extremely well-prepared to take responsibility. He should take the full force of the most hostile criticisms he gets and welcome them," Sonnenfeld said.
Toyoda's appearance before Congress would raise the profile of the Feb. 24 Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing. Yoshimi Inaba, chairman and chief executive of Toyota Motor North America, already is scheduled to appear at the session, along with top U.S. transportation officials.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee moved its scheduled hearing up to Feb. 23, one day ahead of the Oversight Committee meeting. The energy panel has invited Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, and David Strickland, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, to testify. A Senate hearing is planned for March 2.
The auto executives will face scrutiny in the U.S., where the Transportation Department has demanded documents related to its recalls. The department wants to know how long the automaker knew of safety defects before taking action.