The apology was "heartfelt" and the tears were visible. Akio Toyoda, the president of Toyota, will never forget his trip to Washington after being grilled by US politicians on the company's safety record, and feted by employees. Caught in the spotlight, his appearance in the US marked a dramatic turn in a safety crisis that broke a month ago and involved a recall of more than 8.5 million vehicles worldwide over acceleration and braking problems.
Peppered with questions about the scandal that has tarnished Toyota's reputation, Mr Toyoda told politicians he was "deeply sorry" for accidents and injuries involving his cars. "You have my personal commitment that Toyota will work vigorously and unceasingly to restore the trust of our customers," he told angry politicians at the start of three hours of tough questioning. "I am deeply sorry. My name is on every car."
After emerging from his grilling, Mr Toyoda showed the stress he was under when he broke down in tears in an address to a handful of plant workers and dealers at an event organised by the car maker on Wednesday night in Washington. "At the hearing, I was not alone," he told them, voice straining with emotion. "You and your colleagues across America, around the world, were there with me. Words cannot express my gratitude. I believe that Toyota has always worked for the benefit of the US.
"I tried to convey that message from the heart, but whether it was broadly understood or not, I don't know." The fallout from Toyota's extensive recall has left politicians in Japan concerned that the country's image has been severely damaged. With a market value of about US$125 billion (Dh459.13bn), the car maker is at the heart of a huge supplier network that is vital to the economy's health. In the past month, investors have knocked about $30bn off Toyota's market value.
"It was good that the Toyota president himself appeared before the panel and testified," Yukio Hatoyama, the Japanese prime minister, said in Tokyo yesterday. "I don't think this marks the end of everything. This is a matter involving cars that affects people's lives, so the important thing is pay close attention to safety and to fulfil its aim to make improvements where they are needed. I'm hopeful and I think they will do so."
Mr Toyoda's efforts to reassure US officials and consumers were undercut by a confrontation over a memo last year, in which Toyota said it saved $100 million by persuading safety regulators to accept a relatively cheap recall of floor mats implicated in the acceleration problem. "This is going to be a marathon for Toyota," said Chris Gidez, the director of risk management and crisis communications at Hill and Knowlton. "But Toyoda gets points for coming from Japan to testify."
The acceleration problems have been linked to five US deaths and Toyota now faces a criminal investigation as well as a securities inquiry in the US. Mr Toyoda has promised extensive reforms at Toyota, and the car maker's former North American chief, Jim Press, believes the grandson of the company founder is the man to do it. "Akio Toyoda is not only up for the job, he is the only person who can save Toyota," Mr Press said.
* with Reuters