U.S. Opens Inquiry into Prius Braking Problems

There's no stopping Toyota. At least that's what U.S. regulators are concerned about after receiving reports from owners of newly purchased 2010 Prius models who have experienced problems stopping on slippery or bumpy roads. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it will look into reports that the popular hybrid vehicles suffer from momentary loss of braking power when encountering bumps, potholes or uneven road surfaces. The agency said it has received 124 complaints from consumers, including four involving crashes.Government involvement in the latest problem to beset Toyota Motor (TM) came shortly after the world's largest automaker reported a profit of 153.8 billion yen ($1.68 billion) profit in the quarter ending Dec. 31. The car maker rang up those profits before it began a massive recall in January of 2.3 million cars in the U.S. for 'sticky' accelerators.

Toyota said it has already modified the braking system and implemented a fix in Prius models sold since late last month. As with previous recalls, Toyota officials are proceeding cautiously and weighing whether to issue a recall to fix Prius models already on the road.

Toyota's manager in charge of quality, Hiroyuki Yokoyama, told reporters that the new Priuses experienced "a slight unresponsiveness" of the brakes, The New York Times reported. The problem was easily resolved by pressing more firmly on the brake pedal, he said.

New Braking System to Blame

The braking problem doesn't exist in prior-year Priuses. The 2010 model added an additional braking-system technology called regenerative braking. Not uncommon in other hybrid vehicles, the technology uses energy created in braking, say, in stop-and-go driving, to aid in recharging on-board batteries. The sensation of inadequate stopping power is created when the Prius transitions from one braking system to the other, Yokoyama said.

In making the announcement about the U.S. probe Thursday, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said safety was the agency's top priority. "That is why in recent weeks NHTSA has also issued a consumer advisory on the recall of several models of Toyota vehicles and the Pontiac Vibe involving pedal entrapment and sticky accelerator pedals," he said, adding that the issues will be monitored closely.

LaHood's counterpart in Japan said the government plans to investigate whether Toyota has been lax in response to complaints about its cars.

A looming Prius recall comes fast on the heels of the two recalls involving unintended acceleration in some 8 million Toyota models, including the popular Camry and Corolla. Speaking Wednesday, LaHood bungled comments about the ongoing recall of models with sticky accelerators, saying at first owners should "stop driving" them. LaHood later recanted, saying he misspoke. Instead, he advised owners to bring their vehicles to dealers if they were concerned.

More Models Get Scrutiny

Though the Prius is the latest Toyota model to suffer from questions about the company's focus on quality, it doesn't appear to be the last. U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday asked the president of the company's North American operations, Yoshimi Inaba, for more information about the Toyota Tacoma compact pickup truck.

Involved in a previous recall involving unintended acceleration caused by floor mats but not in the latest one created by sticky gas pedals, the NHTSA has nonetheless received some 170 complaints about 2006-10 Tacoma models. Rep. Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y., sent Toyota a letter inquiring as to why the U.S.-made Tacoma models weren't named in the second recall, the Times reported.

Toyota explained the Tacoma used accelerator parts supplied by a Japanese manufacturer, which weren't involved in the latest recall. The suspect models have accelerator pedals manufactured by CTS Corp. (CTS), which operates a plant in Indiana.

Estimates now place the cost of the recall of Toyota cars with gas-pedal problems at $2 billion, CNNMoney.com reported. The amount accounts for fixing about 8 million cars worldwide and factors in a loss of about 100,000 sales lost due to consumer concern. In releasing January sales figures Tuesday, Toyota estimated it lost 20,000 U.S. sales due to the recall, which halted sales and production of its most popular models during the last five days of the month.
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