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Records show a Toyota culture of delay

Response over safety was stronger in Europe

By Micheline Maynard
New York Times / April 12, 2010

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DETROIT — The sense of frustration — and urgency — in the e-mail message was palpable.

“I hate to break this to you,’’ a Toyota executive wrote, “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 USA, to another Toyota staff member. Three days later, the carmaker, bowing to pressure from Congress, federal regulators, and consumers, issued a recall on sticking pedals affecting millions of vehicles.

The cry for action by 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.

Although 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, which is 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 the company stalled in fulfilling its recall pledges and treated safety concerns in the United States differently from those in Europe and Canada, regulators say.

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 it may seek a second fine related to the sticking pedals recall.

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 Sept. 28, officials at Toyota met in Washington 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. Although it has become the norm in Washington to let automakers recall cars voluntarily rather than to 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 US 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 came 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.

A week later, 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, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales USA, told Congress in February that 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 informed about those pedals as far back as April 2009.