WASHINGTON -- Toyota Motor Corp. recalled its Lexus IS 200 in the United Kingdom for floor mat entrapment almost 10 years ago without informing U.S. highway safety regulators.
"We didn't do a very good job of sharing information across the globe," Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A., conceded here today at a hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The United Kingdom recall, which became a hearing topic after Automotive News reported it this morning, raised new questions about when Toyota first learned of unwanted acceleration problems and whether it acted quickly enough in notifyingU.S. authorities.
The recall occurred at least two years before the earliest record of unintended Toyota acceleration previously known to congressional investigators.
Committee members responded to the news with dismay.
"Instead of deploying your engineers in 2000," said Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., "they waited until problems cropped up in the U.S. -- and then Toyota deployed lawyers and lobbyists and convinced the Department of Transportation that this was a small floor mat issue and not something more serious."
According to a 2000 report by United Kingdom Vehicle & Operator Services Agency, a unit of the Department for Transport, “There is a possibility that the driver's side carpet mat may rotate around the central fixing and interfere with the operation of the accelerator pedal.
But Toyota says the United Kingdom recall involved floor mats that were not available in the United States.The recall, listed on the Transport Department's Web site, covered 10,919 IS 200 models built from March 1999 through July 2000 -- predecessors of the IS 250 and IS 350 recalled last fall in the United States.
Brian Lyons, a U.S. spokesman for Toyota, confirmed that the recall took place in 2000.
“Toyota complied with its regulatory obligations,” Lyons said in an e-mail. He said the automaker didn't notify U.S. authorities at the time because it wasn't required to under federal law.
The development follows last week's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration request for Toyota to show when and how it learned of defects that have prompted three recalls of 6 million vehicles in the United States for unintended acceleration.
Two of the actions, last fall's and one in 2007, focus on floor mats that can trap accelerator pedals. The other, in January, involves pedals that can stick and leave the throttle in the open position.
Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocate group, said NHTSA will be looking for this type of detail in its probe.
“I am convinced this British recall is going to play a major role in any floor mat timeliness recall penalty assessed against Toyota,” Ditlow said.
Toyota could face a fine of up to $16.4 million if it failed to meet requirements for initiating a recall promptly after safety defects were discovered, according to NHTSA.
The Feb. 16 NHTSA letter asked Toyota for “a chronology of all events that occurred in foreign countries with regard to interference between the accelerator pedal and the driver's side floor mat in vehicles that are identical or substantially similar to any of the” recalled U.S. vehicles.
Toyota has a March 18 deadline to provide the information.
The Transportation Recall Enhancement, Accountability and Documentation (TREAD) Act, requires automakers to notify U.S. regulators of foreign safety recalls. It went into effect in November 2000, two months after the September 2000 recall of the Lexus IS 200 in the United Kingdom.
Asked why Toyota didn't go beyond the requirements of the act, Lyons said: “The floor mat that was recalled in Europe in 2000 was not available in North America.”
The IS 200 was introduced in the United Kingdom in 1999; its U.S. equivalent, with a larger engine, went on sale in the United States in 2000 as the IS 300.
Lyons added: “The floor mats provided for each market are designed and manufactured in each market. The European mat was not and is not sold in North America.”
Ditlow countered by saying: “The design, construction and supplier of the floor mat are unimportant. The fact the floor mat interfered with the gas pedal is important.”
He noted that Toyota's 2007 recall in the United States focused only on all-weather floor mats. The much-larger 2009 action dealt with a wide variety of mats, Ditlow said.
Congressional investigators told Automotive News that if NHTSA had known about the United Kingdom recall, the information might have affected a 2003 NHTSA study of a unintended accelerations complaints in Lexus LS 400 and GS 400 models from the 1997-2000 model years.
One consumer complaint in that investigation cited a Lexus that “collided with five other cars in the space of one-half mile before it could be stopped.”
NHTSA closed its investigation of the LS 400 and GS 400 in two months after finding “no data indicating the existence of a defect trend.”
The NHTSA report made no mention of Toyota's earlier United Kingdom recall.
Toyota's first U.S. recall for acceleration problems linked to floor mat entrapment was in 2007, when it called back 55,000 Lexus ES350 and Toyota Camry models. Last fall the automaker recalled 4.3 million vehicles, including the Lexus IS 250 and IS 350s, for possible floor mat interference.