Toyota Execs Dragged Their Feet in Warning of 'Sticky' Pedal

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toyota carToyota Motor (TM) executives knew more than they let on about the problems involving unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles, according to documents obtained by news sources and reported Thursday. In January, the company's chief U.S. public relations executive, Irv Miller, warned in an email to colleagues that the auto maker needed to "come clean" about problems involving "sticky" accelerators. By keeping quiet, Miller urged, Toyota "was not protecting our customers."

The email, among some 70,000 documents turned over to government regulators, also shows Miller told Toyota executives: "The time to hide on this one is over. We need to come clean." Five days later, Toyota recalled 2.3 million vehicles to fix sticky accelerators in eight models, including its popular Camry and Corolla sedans.

"Knowingly Hid a Dangerous Defect"

News of Miller's January comments come just days after the Obama administration took Toyota to task for failing to disclose in a timely manner that it knew about the "sticky pedal" problem. In levying a $16.4 million fine against Toyota, the largest allowable by law, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Monday the world's largest auto maker "knowingly hid a dangerous defect for months from U.S. officials and did not take action to protect millions of drivers and their families."

Federal law requires that auto makers disclose safety defects within five days of discovery. Toyota is still deciding whether to pay the fine or fight it. The company has until Apr. 19 to accept or contest the penalty.

"We better just hope that they can get NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] to work with us in coming [up] with a workable solution that does not put us out of business," Miller wrote in the Jan. 16 email, the Associated Press reports. He noted that Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S., and Yoshi Inaba, president of Toyota Motor North America, were traveling to Washington to meet with federal regulators.

Debate on What to Say

In a memo that preceded Miller's by a few hours, Katsuhiko Koganei, executive coordinator for corporate communications at the company's U.S. sales unit, suggested the company shouldn't discuss mechanical failures in accelerator pedals, AP reports.

In an email to Mike Michels, vice-president of external communications, which was copied to other Toyota officials, Koganei wrote, "Now I talked with you on the phone, we should not mention about the mechanical failures of acc. pedal because we have not clarified the real cause of the sticking acc pedal formally, and the remedy for the matter has not been confirmed."

Miller, who has since retired, shot back, writing: "Kogi, I hate to break this to you but WE HAVE A tendency for MECHANICAL failure in accelerator pedals," capitalizing some words for emphasis. The e-mail's subject line said it was about a draft statement to respond to an ABC News story, AP reports.

In a statement posted on its website, Toyota says it "does not comment on internal company communications and cannot comment on Mr. Miller's email." The company admits it "did a poor job of communicating during the period preceding our recent recalls." Toyota says it has since taken steps to improve communications with "regulators and customers on safety-related matters to ensure that this does not happen again."

Awaiting a Plausible Explanation

Toyota vehicle sales fell 13.4% in January and February, due in part to halts in both production and sales of the eight models involved in the "sticky pedal" recall. Sales rebounded in March, surging some 40% ahead of previous year's levels, driven by generous incentives that include zero-interest loans and cheap leases. Toyota said Tuesday it would continue to offer most of the incentives this month.

This most recent revelation is bound to increase scrutiny aimed at Toyota. The company has yet to offer a plausible explanation for incidents of unintended acceleration, which NHTSA attributes to more than 50 deaths in car accidents involving Toyota vehicles. The company's own lawyers have said that "sticky pedals" aren't likely the cause of the problem. And Toyota has repeatedly denied that electronics could be a cause.

Secretary LaHood has asked NASA and the National Academy of Sciences to look into what role electronics may play in unintended acceleration, but that research just got underway and will likely take weeks if not months. In the interim, Toyota would do well to be less cagey and far more forthcoming in disclosing what it knows about quality issues with its automobiles and when it became aware about them.
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