TOKYO - Toyota said Friday it's planning a new level of disclosure about car problems beyond what the automaker is legally required to reveal as it seeks to rebuild consumer trust.
The move comes amid intensifying pressure for the automaker's president, Akio Toyoda, to testify before the U.S. Congress about safety lapses at hearings scheduled later this month. Presently, the highest-ranking company executive slated to attend the hearing is Toyota's North American head, Yoshimi Inaba.
Experts say it's vital that Toyoda appear at the Washington hearings to reverse the perception that the company has been slow to recognize and tackle the safety problems that have led it to recall 8.5 million vehicles.
"The final authority needs to be there and explain the situation and say what the company is doing to resolve the problems," said Yoshinobu Yamamoto, professor of international relations at Aoyama University in Japan.
If the hearing in Washington goes poorly - if Toyota executives come across as aloof or American politicians come down in a way perceived in Japan as excessively harsh - it could even hurt diplomatic ties between the two nations. Relations are already strained over a dispute about plans to relocate a U.S. Marine base on Okinawa.
"This is Toyota's problem, but if it's mishandled, it could spread to other areas," said Yamamoto.
Japanese media reports say Toyoda will attend the hearings in Washington, but the company declined to confirm that. Toyoda is expected to visit the United States in early March to meet with government officials and Toyota employees - but that would come after the House Oversight Committee hearing set for Feb. 24 and the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing planned for Feb. 25.
Friday's news that Toyota plans to voluntarily disclose problems that are below recall-level seriousness shows that Toyota is taking some steps to restore its reputation. Details of the openness plan would be announced in the future.