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Ex-Toyota exec warned of safety, quality problems in ’06

March 2, 2010

Ex-Toyota exec warned of safety, quality problems in ’06

Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Jim Press, the former president of Toyota Motor North America, warned fellow executives of declining safety and quality issues in 2006, documents presented before a Senate committee hearing today show.

The internal presentation, dated Sept. 20, 2006, called for executives to "strengthen relationship with NHTSA and related organizations." And it urged Toyota Motor Corp. officials in Japan to "support with timely, reasonable requests to investigations" and "consider image impact of technical responses" to safety and quality issues.

Press warned that "as more of our customers experience recalls, customer loyalty will suffer."

The documents that show Toyota North America execs were dissatisfied with the response of their Japanese counterparts to U.S. quality and safety issues came during a Senate hearing on Toyota’s recent rash of recalls. Some 8.5 million vehicles have been recalled worldwide, more than 6 million of them in the U.S.

In earlier testimony, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the nation’s top auto safety regulatory agency is considering recommending the installation of brake override systems in all vehicles, the result of consumer complaints of brake failure and unintended acceleration.

"We are looking at the possibility of recommending the brake override system to all manufacturers of automobiles," LaHood said before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which is probing the Toyota recalls.

Clarence M. Ditlow, executive director of the independent Center for Auto Safety, echoed LaHood’s call in testimony submitted to the committee.

Ditlow recommended updating accelerator standards, penned in 1973, and including a requirement for brake override systems.

He also recommended new standards to prevent electronic magnetic interference protection for key vehicle electronics systems, as well as a new mandate for the installation of Event Data Recorders, the automotive equivalent of so-called "black box" recorders required on airplanes.

The recommendations from LaHood and Ditlow come as the government reported more fatalities linked to runaway Toyotas, and the committee chairman’s revelation that he is considering introducing legislation to strengthen the government’s hand in safety regulation.

Sen. John "Jay" Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said new laws expanding federal authority over auto safety issues may be necessary after a slew of recalls announced by Toyota Motor Corp. over the past few months.

"I do intend to work on comprehensive legislation to get at all of these issues in a real way. We need to look at current law and ask if it is strong enough to prevent something like this from happening again," Rockefeller said in his opening statement before the committee. "I know my colleagues have much to contribute to this effort, and I welcome it."

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said today it has received complaints of 52 deaths connected to reports of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles since 2000.

The government had reported receiving allegations of 34 deaths because of sudden acceleration in Toyotas during the past decade. The updated number is through the end of February.

NHTSA has now received 43 fatal accident complaints, some involving multiple deaths, allegedly connected to unintended acceleration issues in Toyota vehicles since 2000. In total, the complaints through the end of February involved 38 injuries in addition to the 52 fatalities, NHTSA said.

The safety regulation agency said 32 of the 43 fatal crash reports — about three-quarters — have come since the Japanese automaker’s October recall for floor mat issues; 60 percent came after January’s recall for "sticky pedal" problems.

In a statement, NHTSA spokeswoman Olivia Alair said it’s normal for the agency to see a spike in complaints following major recalls, as the public becomes more aware of problems.

The Senate hearing follows two separate House hearings on the company’s recent recalls of more than 8.5 million vehicles worldwide, including 6 million in the United States, for reports of unintended acceleration and brake failure that have resulted in a number of high-profile crashes in recent years.

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