WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) -- Toyota Motor Corp.'s top executive didn't grasp how the carmaker's record recalls hurt its reputation in the United States until after he traveled there in February, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said.
President Akio Toyoda “understood maybe for the first time that Toyota was facing some very, very serious credibility problems in the United States,” following his visit in February, LaHood said on a conference call today after visiting the company's headquarters in Toyota City, Japan.
Toyota was assailed this year by U.S. lawmakers, regulators and safety advocates for responding too slowly to complaints of unintended acceleration in its vehicles. LaHood said on Feb. 2 that Toyota was being “safety deaf” as complaints from customers mounted.
Toyoda “has listened and he has paid attention,” LaHood said today.
The carmaker agreed on April 19 to pay a record $16.4 million fine levied by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for failing to promptly report flaws in accelerator pedals that led to recalls of more than 8 million vehicles worldwide.
U.S. regulators are now reviewing about 500,000 Toyota documents as they investigate defects that may have caused the unintended acceleration, and will need a “couple months” before determining the next course of action, LaHood said.
“Toyota will fully cooperate with NHTSA in working toward a common goal of creating a safe automobile society,” Toyoda, the 54-year-old grandson of Toyota's founder, said at a press conference earlier today.
Toyoda said he invited LaHood to tour the automaker's U.S. manufacturing and quality control facilities.
The U.S. hasn't ruled out imposing further fines.
“Until we pore through these documents, we're not going to know what additional steps we're going to need to take,” LaHood said on the call. “We're probably not going to know that for a couple months.”
Earlier, speaking to reporters while at the automaker's headquarters, he declined to dismiss the idea of further fines.
“We will continue our review of documents presented to us,” LaHood said. “If a fine is required, I think everyone recognizes now that safety is our number-one priority. When we have recommendations to make, we will make them.”
Plea for 4Runner investigation
Lawyers for the family of a man who died when his Toyota pickup truck rolled over sent a letter to LaHood today asking him to investigate the timing of a 2005 U.S. recall for steering relay rod defects in vehicles including 4Runners relative to a 2004 recall in Japan for the same flaw.
“The company's internal records show that it was aware of many relay rod failures occurring in the U.S. before it recalled the same component in only Japan,” attorney
John Kristensen, of O'Reilly Collins in San Mateo, Calif., said in the letter. “U.S. consumers had to wait another year before Toyota took action. The agency should investigate the wide chronological gaps and apparent falsehoods Toyota has provided about the relay rod defect.”
O'Reilly Collins represents the family of Michael Levi Stewart, 18, whose 1991 Toyota pickup rolled over into a ditch in Idaho in 2007. The lawsuit claims a defect in the steering relay rod caused the accident.
Cindy Knight, a Washington-based spokeswoman for Toyota, said the company doesn't comment on legal matters and wasn't immediately able to discuss the timeliness of the U.S. recall of light trucks mentioned by O'Reilly Collins.
Olivia Alair, a Transportation Department spokeswoman, had no immediate comment.
LaHood, while in Japan, also plans also to visit Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co., he said.
Toyota was fined because LaHood said documents showed the company “knowingly hid” defects tied to unintended acceleration for four months, violating rules that require notification in five days. The fine amounts to less than 2 percent of Toyota's projected net income for the year ended March 31.
LaHood has said paying the fine showed Toyota accepted responsibility for the violation. The company denied the accusations made by NHTSA, saying it paid the fine to avoid “a protracted dispute.”
At least 180 consumer and shareholder lawsuits are seeking class-action status and at least 57 individual suits are claiming injuries or deaths caused by sudden acceleration incidents in Toyota vehicles.