Toyota chief agrees to appear before US Congress

TOKYO: The head of embattled Japanese auto firm Toyota bowed to mounting pressure on Friday and agreed to appear before the United States Congress to answer concerns about safety.

Akio Toyoda, scion of the Japanese car making family, is notoriously publicity-shy and had insisted he would not appear in person before Congress.

But following an invitation by Representative Edolphus Towns on Thursday he finally relented.

"I have received Congressman Towns? invitation to testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on February 24 and I accept. I look forward to speaking directly with Congress and the American people," Toyoda said in a brief statement.

Toyoda plans to speak to local media at 9:30 am (0030 GMT) Friday at Toyota's headquarters in Nagoya, central Japan, Jiji Press reported.

The manufacturer is recalling more than eight million cars worldwide over defects linked to more than 30 deaths.

The iconic company, whose global expansion pushed it past General Motors in 2008 as world number one, is facing a litany of complaints ranging from unintended acceleration to brake failure and steering problems.

"President Toyoda should have announced his attendance much earlier as he has no choice but to appear before Congress under the current circumstances," Mamoru Kato, an analyst at Tokai Tokyo Research Centre.

"Toyota Motor hopes to calm the issue with his appearance but it's unlikely," Kato said. "There is no sign of (this) blowing over as distrust with Toyota is quite serious, particularly in the United States."

Friday's announcement by Toyoda came as the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration formally launched an investigation into complaints of steering problems in 2009 and 2010 models of the Toyota Matrix and Corolla.

It came after the Japanese auto industry suffered a fresh blow to its reputation Thursday as the transport ministry announced the recall of 4,000 Isuzu trucks. Isuzu is partly owned by Toyota.

Toyota said it was looking into the alleged problem with the Corollas and would recall the vehicles if necessary.

Toyota stock has plunged about 20 percent since January 21 in response to the mass recalls, which have triggered fears for the brand image of the whole of corporate Japan.

US authorities on Tuesday demanded that Toyota hand over documents to prove it did not drag its feet in recalling vehicles once it learnt about defects that can lead to unintended acceleration.

The number of complaints alleging deaths related to unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles has surged to at least 34 since the company announced on January 26 it was suspending sales of eight models in the United States.

President Barack Obama's Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has vowed "to hold Toyota's feet to the fire" to make sure its cars are safe.

The company faces dozens of lawsuits in the United States alleging it was too slow to act on the problems. Experts say the legal action could potentially cost the company billions of dollars.

In a bid to prevent runaway car crashes, Toyota announced Wednesday that it would fit all new models with a system to cut engine power when the driver steps on the accelerator and brake pedals at the same time.