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February 18, 2010
Toyota Takes New Steps to Restore Confidence

TOKYO — Toyota’s president, Akio Toyoda, offered several steps Wednesday aimed at restoring trust in the embattled Japanese automaker, including installation of new brake-override systems in future models and quicker disclosure of defects.

Mr. Toyoda also said he would consider testifying before congressional hearings if a formal request were made.

But in another setback, Toyota said it was looking into reports of steering problems in its popular Corolla subcompact and would issue a recall if a defect was found. The company stressed, however, that it had received fewer than 100 such reports and had not determined a possible cause.

At a news conference, Mr. Toyoda said that the company had never misled or hidden information from American regulators. “I hope you understand that we have never tried to mislead or evade,” he said.

Congress has scheduled at least three hearings related to problems that have led the automaker to recall more than eight million vehicles for brake issues, sticky accelerators and floor mats that can interfere with the gas pedal.

Mr. Toyoda said that he “would consider” testifying before lawmakers if a formal request were made, but added that Yoshimi Inaba, head of Toyota’s American unit, was better positioned to attend.

At this point, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is conducting the first hearing next Wednesday, has not asked Mr. Toyoda to testify, said Jenny Rosenberg, a spokeswoman for Edolphus Towns, Democrat of New York and the committee chairman. But Ms. Rosenberg did not rule out the possibility of making such a request.

Toyota is also overhauling its approach to quality and safety, Mr. Toyoda said at the news conference, and that he wants to focus on those efforts.

To restore trust in its cars, the company plans to install new brake-override systems in all future models. The override system would ensure that if both the accelerator and brake pedals are pressed down, the brakes are activated and not the accelerator.

Some experts and drivers have suggested that problems with the electronic throttle systems were partly to blame for the unintended acceleration that has occurred in some Toyotas, but Mr. Toyoda said that was not the case..

“Toyota uses many sensors to ensure its electronic throttle systems are fail-safe,” Mr. Toyoda said. “Rigorous tests” of the system have been conducted to make sure it did not trigger sudden acceleration, he said. Still, Toyota will continue to work with outside experts to conduct additional tests.

Shinichi Sasaki, Toyota’s quality chief, said the company was studying ways to alert drivers more quickly of potential problems. The company is setting up a special committee for global quality, led by Mr. Toyoda, to oversee its handling of possible defects and will call on outside experts to monitor its proceedings.

On the Corolla issue, Mr. Sasaki said drivers had reported feeling like they were losing control of the steering system. He said, though, that the company was not sure whether there might be a problem with the brakes, the tires or another part.

Mr. Toyoda and Mr. Sasaki spoke a day after safety regulators in Washington said that they were investigating whether Toyota had acted quickly enough in recalling millions of vehicles to repair accelerator pedals.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it was seeking documents from Toyota showing when the carmaker had learned of problems with the pedals and how long it had waited before initiating recalls.

American law requires manufacturers to notify the agency within five days of identifying a defect and then to begin a recall promptly. If Toyota is found to have waited too long, the government said it could fine the automaker as much as $16.4 million, the maximum allowed by law. The largest such fine levied against an automaker was $1 million.

“Safety recalls are a very serious matters, and automakers are required to quickly report defects,” the Transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, said in a statement.

The safety agency has itself come under some scrutiny about the timeliness of its response to reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota cars and trucks. State Farm, the big insurer, alerted regulators in 2007 about instances of Toyotas experiencing sudden acceleration. At least three Congressional hearings are scheduled, two of them next week, to examine the role of the safety agency.

The inquiry opened on Tuesday involves three recalls covering about six million vehicles in the United States. In addition to the January recall for potentially sticky accelerator pedals and a November recall involving accelerator pedals that could become trapped under the floor mat, the government is looking into a 2007 recall of the Toyota Camry and Lexus ES 350 sedans. That was the first recall in which Toyota said floor mats could cause unintended acceleration by interfering with pedals.

Recalls begun this month — for a flaw in the braking systems of more than 400,000 hybrid cars, including Prius sedans, and for a problem with the front driveshaft of 8,000 Tacoma pickups — are not being examined.

Toyota said in a statement that it was reviewing the regulator’s request for documentation and would “cooperate to provide all the information they have requested.”

At his news conference Wednesday, Mr. Toyoda lamented that an overzealous pursuit of growth had led Toyota to lose sight of its commitment to quality.

“We so aggressively pursued numbers that we were unable to keep up with training staff to oversee quality,” he said. “We were also somewhat slow in collecting, analyzing and acting on complaints we received from our drivers,” he added.

“We intend to return to the basics of the Toyota Way,” Mr. Toyoda added, referring to a production philosophy based on continuous improvement and efficiency that once made the company the envy of global manufacturers.

He also apologized for waiting weeks after the initial recalls to appear before the media. “My appearance was late. That’s been done, and I am sorry,” he said. “But now I’m here.”

The recalls have affected sales, and the company announced Tuesday that it would temporarily idle two plants in the United States to reduce inventories.

Toyota plans to halt assembly of sedans in Georgetown, Ky., on Feb. 26, and for up to three days in March and April, a company spokesman, Mike Goss, said. A pickup truck plant in San Antonio will be idled the weeks of March 15 and April 12.

Toyota sales fell 16 percent in January after it halted sales and production of eight models that were part of the recall that month. Production resumed after a week, and dealers can now sell the affected models after repairing the accelerator pedal.

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