Throughout a blistering afternoon that could have broken a weaker man, Akio Toyoda, often described as the “reluctant” President and CEO of embattled Toyota Motor Co., retained a sense of cool as he stared down the members of a Congressional committee investigating problems that have not only resulted in the recall of millions of Toyota products but tattered a reputation the maker has spent decades cultivating.
It was a critical moment for both Toyota and Toyoda, the executive initially declining to come to Washington, then reversing that stand in the wake of furious headlines. But with a relatively weak grip on English, and the likelihood that the members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee would engage as much in a sort of Kabuki theater as a real inquiry, many observers wondered whether the 53-year grandson of Toyota’s founder could salvage both the automaker’s reputation – and his own.
Sticking close to the script, Toyoda wouldn’t give much ground, despite the toughest questions. But neither would he yield many details – leaving that up to his subordinates. And there may lie the real future of Toyota, for in two days of testimony before a pair of Capitol Hill committees, the company that has long stressed safety and quality as its hallmarks suddenly seems both more interested in the bottom line and less able to build safe, reliable cars.
Toyoda’s appearance before the Oversight Committee began on a reasonably congenial note. After swearing in, the Toyota chief executive read from a prepared statement in a heavily accented but understandable English. And, as he has done during three news conferences, back in Japan, in recent weeks, Toyoda began with an apology for the problems his company has caused.
“My name is on every car. You have my personal commitment that Toyota will work vigorously and unceasingly to restore the trust of our customers,” said the man often referred to as “The Prince,” back in Japan. In turn, the assembled Congress men and women offered polite thanks for Toyoda’s decision to come to Washington. But the friendly tone didn’t last very long, and the executive switched to working in Japanese, through a translator.