Posted on 12 Apr 2010
"I hate to break this to you," a Toyota executive wrote in an email, "but we have a tendency for mechanical failure in accelerator pedals of a certain manufacturer on certain models. The message continued: "The time to hide on this one is over. We need to come clean."
The message was written in January by Irving A. Miller, then a group vice president for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., to another Toyota staff member. Three days later, the car maker, bowing to pressure from Congress, federal regulators and consumers, issued a recall on sticking pedals affecting millions of vehicles.
The cry for action by Mr. Miller, disclosed in documents made public for the first time last week, came at the end of an extraordinary four-month period for the Japanese automaker. In that time, federal regulators say, there had been deliberate efforts by company officials to keep information about possible defects from the government.
While Toyota’s pattern of dragging its feet over the years on safety issues has drawn recent attention, the decision by transportation authorities last Monday to seek fines against Toyota provides an unusual close-up look at the company — well known for its opaque corporate culture — as it handled its biggest safety crisis since it started selling cars in the United States in 1957.
In announcing that he would seek the maximum $16.4 million fine over the sticking pedal recall, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has repeatedly called Toyota “safety deaf,” zeroed in on the months between late September and mid-January for particular criticism.
New details about the company’s actions — based on government timelines, 70,000 pages of Toyota documents and interviews — show the degree to which regulators say the company stalled in fulfilling its recall pledges and treated safety concerns in the United States differently from those in Europe and Canada.
The documents Toyota provided to Congress and the Transportation Department are still being reviewed by federal investigators for possible additional fines. On Friday, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released a letter to Toyota indicating that it might seek a second fine related to the recall for sticking pedals.
The materials outline the company’s efforts to juggle two sets of recalls, one for the sticking accelerator pedals and the other for floor mats blamed for sudden acceleration problems.
On Monday, Sept. 28, a warm early autumn day in Washington, officials at Toyota met with the safety agency and said the company would recall cars whose floor mats could become entangled in accelerator pedals. The agency pressed Toyota to also announce how it would repair the cars, which Toyota did not do until Nov. 25.
The discussions on floor mats began the four-month period in which the carmaker and the agency were repeatedly at odds over Toyota’s handling of its mounting safety issues related to both recalls.
Along with Toyota’s tardiness, that period has raised questions about whether the traffic safety agency was remiss in not pushing the company to act sooner. While it has become the norm in Washington to let automakers recall cars voluntarily rather than order safety measures, which can require years of investigation and a formal finding of a defect, some lawmakers suggested that the federal government shared the blame.
“The bottom line is that both industry and regulators failed,” said Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Representative Darrell Issa, the ranking Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Toyota officials in Japan, who are responsible for recall decisions, declined to comment for this article.
But the documents and chronologies show the company had ample knowledge of incidents of sticking pedals well before its recall. They also show that Toyota treated consumers in the United States differently from those in Europe and Canada when it came to fixing the problems of sticking pedals and floor mats.
On Sept. 29, the day after regulators say Toyota had pledged to order a floor-mat recall, the company issued a safety advisory — a step short of a recall — to the owners of 3.8 million vehicles in this country, warning them that their floor mats might become entangled in the pedals.
Rather than say how it would fix the problem, as regulators wanted, Toyota told those owners to remove the floor mats until the company could come up with a remedy. Toyota said a recall would come later.
Yet on that same day, Toyota told dealers in European countries that it was changing the way it would build cars sold there, and outlined the repair procedures the dealers should follow in the event of sticking gas pedals, sudden engine surges or unexpected acceleration, the documents show. And a week later in Canada, Transport Canada, the Canadian regulator, issued a recall of more than 378,000 vehicles for the floor mat issue. It told owners there how those vehicles would be fixed: by changing the shape of the pedal, and in some cases, reconfiguring the floor. Some Canadian cars also might get brake override systems, meant to stop the car if it accelerated unexpectedly, the agency said.
All the while, the complaints about acceleration problems continued in the United States. From October through January, Toyota told the traffic safety agency that the company had received field reports about the same sticking pedals issue it had warned dealers about in Europe.
James E. Lentz III, the president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., told Congress in February he did not know of the reports of sticking pedals in Europe until January. But Toyota’s own chronology shows that engineers in the United States were told about those pedals as far back as April 2009.
A spokesman for Toyota in the United States, Brian Lyons, said on Friday, “Back in that time frame, they had felt that this was a uniquely European market issue.”
Meanwhile, Toyota issued its recall for floor mats in the United States on Nov. 2, but it did not outline the remedy for several more weeks. By mid-December, traffic safety officials were so frustrated with the back-and-forth over the issues that they decided to fly to Japan to urge the company to act more quickly.
Still, it took another month for Toyota to acknowledge to the agency that its pedals might have a “dangerous” sticking defect, according to the agency. That acknowledgment came on Jan. 16, the same day as Mr. Miller’s plaintive e-mail message.
“We are not protecting our customers by keeping this quiet,” wrote Mr. Miller, a tireless defender of Toyota who for years was its public face in this country.
It would require one more meeting, on Jan. 19 at the headquarters of the Transportation Department in Washington, before the company reached a decision to order the recall.
Toyota executives, including Mr. Lentz and Yoshimi Inaba, the president of Toyota North America, left that meeting without agreeing to take action, agency officials said, but they agreed to a recall during a telephone call that evening. Two days later, on Jan. 21, Toyota recalled 2.3 million vehicles in the United States for sticking pedals, and issued a similar recall in Canada.
Appearing before Congress a month later, the company president, Akio Toyoda, said his company had “pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization.”
He told lawmakers, “I am deeply sorry for any accidents that Toyota drivers have experienced.” Since then, Toyota has shifted its public posture toward blaming miscommunication for its problems.
“Once we thoroughly explored and tried to identify the root cause, we came to realize the problem was rather with communications than with quality itself,” Mr. Toyoda told investment analysts on Wednesday.
In a statement later that day, responding to questions about the e-mail message by Mr. Miller, who has since retired, Toyota said much the same. “We have publicly acknowledged on several occasions that the company did a poor job of communicating during the period preceding our recent recalls,” the company said.