WASHINGTON -- Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller -- an influential Democrat whose ties with Toyota and Japan span more than five decades -- wrapped up the hearing Tuesday on Toyota's safety defects by expressing frustration with company executives' refusal to answer many of the panel's questions.
“We all feel some frustration in trying to get to the bottom of some of our questions,” Rockefeller, D-W.Va., speaking for other senators on the committee. “It's a question of accountability. There is more direct knowledge at the table than has disclosed itself.”
Rockefeller, in faulting their responses, spoke directly to the three senior Toyota executives who testified Tuesday.
He cited their answers on when the company first became aware of its unintended acceleration problems, how it responded to consumer complaints and to safety warnings from its U.S. executives, and how it knows that its recalls have solved all the safety defects.
The Toyota executives responded to many questions by saying either that they didn't know the answers or would have to look them up and get back to the committee.
"Many questions have come back, 'we' re doing recalls,' as if that's a problem solver," Rockefeller said. "'We will get back to you on that.' That's not a direct answer."
Rockefeller's comments echoed the dissatisfaction expressed by a number of House members last week after hearing testimony from Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda.
The three executives who testified were executive vice president Shinichi Sasaki, who is responsible for quality assurance and customer service; executive vice president Takeshi Uchiyamada, the company's chief engineer, and Toyota Motor North America President Yoshimi Inaba.
“We understand fully there is a big room for improvement,” Uchiyamada responded to Rockefeller through an interpreter. “When we manufacture our vehicles, our priorities are No. 1, safety, No. 2 quality and No. 3 delivery. This has never been changed. We are feeling we have to do something about it right away. I will be on the front line and working hard.”
The senator's tough comments appeared to be a bit of a painful turnaround for the Rockefeller heir.
He spoke affectionately of his college education in Japan in the 1950s, where he said he developed some close friendships. Rockefeller later was instrumental in attracting a $1 billion Toyota engine plant to West Virginia more than a decade ago.
“I know what kind of company you are and can be again,” Rockefeller said Tuesday near the end of his remarks. “When I was a student in Japan, I learned that Japanese and Americans have different ways of talking to each other. But this is a professional problem.”