February 1, 2010 U.S. raised Toyota gas pedal issue in '07 | detnews.com | The Detroit News
U.S. raised Toyota gas pedal issue in '07
Ex-NHTSA official: Carmaker insisted 'it was the floor mats'
A former top U.S. safety official said federal investigators raised concerns to Toyota Motor Corp. about the gas pedals in its vehicles as far back as 2007 but were told they weren't the problem.
At the time, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Japanese automaker were investigating hundreds of reports of unintended acceleration of Toyota vehicles.
"Toyota was certain it was the floor mats," Nicole Nason, NHTSA administrator from 2006 until late 2008, said in an interview.
"If Toyota misled the federal government, they should be severely punished," Nason said. She said it was "extremely coincidental" that Toyota has issued two separate recalls involving the pedals of models NHTSA was investigating in 2007.
As Toyota's handling of this issue comes under increasing scrutiny, the company is trying to reassure its dealers, customers and the public.
Toyota is expected to outline to dealers today how it plans to check and repair the pedals of 2.3 million vehicles it recalled Jan. 21.
In addition, Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., is scheduled to appear on NBC's "Today" show this morning and other programs to explain the automaker's plan to fix the problem.
Toyota also bought ads in major newspapers Sunday and today to stress that dealers were first in line to receive new pedals so that they could work on customers' recalled vehicles.
"A temporary pause. To put you first," the ads say. They go on to explain that Toyota is halting production this week of the eight Toyota-brand recalled models "because it's the right thing to do for our customers."
The production halt, announced last week, will allow the company to ship more new pedals to dealers so they can service their customers' vehicles and repair cars in stock.
The recall to fix pedals that can get stuck or fail to spring back properly follows a huge recall in September to address the risk of unintended acceleration linked to floor mats. That recall, Toyota's largest ever in the United States, was expanded last week to more than 5.3 million vehicles.
Toyota says the two recalls are unrelated. It has attributed reports of unintended acceleration that go back many years to loose floor mats and other materials that could entrap the pedals.
Toyota officials say the company identified the problem of the sticking pedals produced by one supplier, Elkhart, Ind.-based CTS Corp., as they were reviewing reports of unintended acceleration in vehicles that didn't have mats.
Nason said NHTSA investigators asked in 2007 whether the pedals might be part of the problem during the agency's questioning about mats that were interfering with the pedals. Toyota issued a small recall of Lexus and Toyota cars in 2007 to replace all-weather mats.
NHTSA said in an April 2008 report that it sent surveys to nearly 2,000 owners of 2007 Lexus ES350 sedans and nearly 10 percent -- or 59 out of 600 that responded -- reported they had "experienced unintended acceleration," but only 35 of those said they had all-weather floor mats.
But in 2007 and 2008, the automaker repeatedly told NHTSA that no fixes to the pedals -- or anything else beyond the floor mats -- was necessary.
Nason said NHTSA's interaction with Toyota in 2007 raises questions about how much regulators have to rely on what automakers tell them.
"It goes to the larger question of trust between the agency and the automaker," Nason said. She said NHTSA took appropriate action in 2007 based on what the agency knew. "I don't think it was necessary for us to force them to do more because they presented us with a problem and a solution."
Toyota maintained that loose or ill-fitting mats were the problem until November, drawing a public rebuke at that point from the federal safety agency for saying the mats were the only issue.
Two committees in Congress are investigating how NHTSA and Toyota handled the reports of unintended acceleration. They will hold hearings this month. The last thing Toyota needs is weeks of drawn-out investigations, hearings and potentially conflicting accounts with NHTSA, said Jeffrey Caponigro, president of Caponigro Public Relations Inc., which has offices in Southfield and Tampa, Fla.
"That will just continue to remind people about the quality issues of Toyota," said Caponigro, who has advised automakers in crisis management.
Toyota officials were not available to respond to Nason's comments. But the company has said its investigations of floor mat and pedal issues in 2007 and 2008 were proper.
In a report sent to NHTSA on Jan. 21, Toyota said that in 2007 it received reports of pedals in Tundra trucks that felt rough or were slow to return to the idle position. Toyota identified a material in the pedal that could swell under humid conditions. It had its supplier use a different material but said it "considered it to be a drivability issue unrelated to safety."
Late in 2008, Toyota said it received information from its European operations about sticking pedals. It said it began a detailed investigation in March 2009.
Last week, Toyota discussed potential fixes for the pedals with NHTSA executives.
The federal safety agency is not required to formally approve a remedy but automakers involved in big recalls tend to consult with NHTSA officials. While NHTSA doesn't approve recall fixes, it has the power to object if its engineers don't think it solves the problem.
A senior Transportation Department official told The Detroit News late Saturday that Toyota had presented it with a fix, and it did not object.
Dealers expect to hear details of the remedies today and to start receiving parts later this week. It appears that most of the recalled vehicles will have the pedals repaired, while others will have them replaced.