Tokyo: As Toyota Motor Corp.’s recalls spread to at least 7.6 million cars across five continents, president Akio Toyoda’s only public comments on the matter have consisted of an impromptu, 75-second interview with a Japanese broadcaster in Davos, Switzerland.
More than a week after the world’s biggest car maker said it would recall vehicles in the US to fix defective gas pedals linked to unintended acceleration, Toyoda, 53, still hasn’t addressed other media. The grandson of Toyota’s founder has left the task to the US sales chief Jim Lentz and to executive vice-president Shinichi Sasaki, who is in charge of quality control.
Toyota is a global company, but their way of handling this problem hasn’t been up to global standards, said Yasuhiro Matsumoto, a Shinsei Securities Co. analyst in Tokyo. For the top executive to be invisible when there is a fatal problem for the company gives the impression that he is trying to keep a low profile and hide.
Domestic pressure on Toyota rose on Wednesday after the Japanese government said it ordered the auto maker in August to investigate its new Prius hybrid, which has not been part of the recalls. The car maker’s sales in the US dropped to a 10-year low in January, pushing its stock in Tokyo down 5.7%.
Credibility hit: Toyota president Akio Toyoda. Pressure on the firm rose after the Japanese government said it ordered the auto maker in August to probe its new Prius hybrid, which has not been part of the recalls. Tomohiro Ohsumi / Bloomberg
Toyota won’t comment on Toyoda’s whereabouts, citing company security policy, according to spokeswoman Ririko Takeuchi. Last week, the car maker declined to confirm his attendance at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he said in an unscheduled NHK television network interview on 29 January, “I am deeply sorry that we’re giving cause for concern to customers.”
The car maker has received 14 brake-related complaints about the latest Prius model since it was introduced in May, Japan’s Transport Ministry said. Toyota’s Takeuchi declined to say whether the company had begun investigating the complaints.
Executive management should be clearly in front to inform customers of actions that are being pursued, said Margaret Key, managing director of public relations company Edelman Japan KK in Tokyo, which specializes in crisis management. This is critical in matters such as product recalls.
Toyota executives and public relations staff in the US and Japan clashed last week over who should appear in public to apologize, two people familiar with the matter said, declining to be identified as the discussions were private.
Some insisted that Toyoda should make a public statement, and participants in conference calls shouted at each other, one of the people said. US staff were frustrated at a lack of swift action by the parent company, the person said.
Mike Michels, a spokesman for Toyota’s US sales unit, said he wasn’t aware of any disputes between company officials in Japan and the US over Toyoda’s role.
Information on this recall has been coming mostly out of the US, said Takashi Aoki, who helps manage about $1 billion (Rs4,600 crore) at Mizuho Asset Management Co. in Tokyo. There is definitely a concern about what is going on with Toyota headquarters’ corporate governance.
Toyota’s Lentz, who appeared on NBC Universal’s Today show and other US news programmes on 1 February, said dealers will begin fixing accelerator pedals with kits they will receive in the next day or so. The kits include steel plates to prevent pedals from sticking, said John Hanson, a company spokesman.
Elkhart, Indiana-based CTS Corp., maker of the original pedals, is delivering modified versions to Toyota’s North American factories, where five assembly lines were shut as the company suspended US sales and production of eight recalled models. Manufacturing will resume 8 February, Lentz said.
The recall to fix accelerator pedals includes the top-selling Camry and Corolla models and covers 2.57 million vehicles in the US and Canada, 1.71 million in Europe and 80,000 in China. It also includes 180,000 in Latin America, Africa and the West Asia, Toyota’s Sasaki told reporters on Tuesday in Nagoya, Japan.
Separately, the company is recalling 5.35 million vehicles in the US because of floor mats that could jam pedals. Covered vehicles include model years 2004-2009 Prius hybrids, 2007-2010 Lexus ES350, 2006-2010 Lexus IS250 and 2006-2010 Lexus IS350. Toyota has said 2.1 million vehicles are covered by both safety actions.
Kae Inoue in Tokyo, Yuki Hagiwara in Nagoya and Margaret Cronin Fisk in Southfield, Michigan, contributed to this story.