The president of Toyota Motor Corp., Akio Toyoda, told Congress this week he is "deeply sorry" for his company's recalls of 8.5 million cars and trucks because of safety issues, and for the accidents related to those issues. Such expressions of contrition, however sincere, are just the beginning of what the world's largest automaker must do to restore its credibility and rebuild consumer trust.
Toyota must be more candid than it has been so far about what caused so many of its vehicles to accelerate suddenly and uncontrollably. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration links that issue to as many as 34 deaths in the past nine years. Toyota must show, not merely assert, that it truly has solved the problem and is fixing all defective vehicles as quickly as it can.
The automaker is more likely to achieve these goals if NHTSA does a more effective job of regulating Toyota -- and all other automakers -- than it has in recent years. An internal company presentation boasted that Toyota saved $100 million in potential recall costs by persuading NHTSA in 2007 that the sudden-acceleration problem was essentially the result of badly aligned floor mats. That document, which became part of the record of this week's congressional hearings, reflects poorly on both Toyota and the federal agency.
Toyota insists it now is on top of the problem. It points to its recalls aimed at replacing the floor mats and installing new gas pedals to replace sticky ones and its decision last month to stop its production and sale of several models. But other witnesses at this week's hearings told a different, frightening story.
They described a company that for years responded to thousands of consumer complaints and accounts of hundreds of accidents by settling individual lawsuits quietly, by blaming the reports on driver error or poor vehicle maintenance, or by simply ignoring them. And they assailed a federal bureaucracy that largely took Toyota's assurances at face value instead of verifying them independently. To its credit, NHTSA's current leaders have been far more effective than their predecessors in prodding Toyota on the recalls and other responses to the safety issues.
Toyota rejects critics' claims that the advanced electronic throttle system it uses to control its vehicles' acceleration is the real culprit. But in his testimony this week, Toyota's top U.S. executive conceded that a "mechanical, human or some other type of issue" may also be a factor in sudden-accleration incidents. Only a thorough, public investigation of the electronic system -- far broader than the limited study Toyota has conducted -- will resolve the questions.
Perspective must be kept. Toyota is not the only automaker to be afflicted by safety problems requiring mass recalls. The reports of sudden acceleration affect just a tiny percentage of all Toyota and Lexus vehicles in use.
Nor has Toyota shown a chronic inattention to vehicle safety and reliability. To the contrary, its previous sterling record has made its more recent lapses all the more shocking.
Mr. Toyoda conceded to lawmakers this week that Toyota "confused" its priorities in recent years, placing rapid growth and sales volume ahead of its traditionally relentless focus on safety and quality. His assurances that his company has put its priorities back in order deserve respect.
But they also demand the closest scrutiny, by consumers and government.