WASHINGTON -- Akio Toyoda’s words of assurance yesterday may come back to haunt him once federal investigators digest his company’s documents in the latest investigation of Toyota safety defects.
“I hope you understand that we have never hidden anything, and we have never misled,” the Toyota Motor Corp. president said at a joint news conference in Japan with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Just hours later, LaHood’s staff in Washington released letters sent by Toyota to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2004 and 2005.
These letters raised questions from both federal investigators and plaintiffs’ lawyers about whether the company was hiding safety defects and misleading regulators.
Did Toyota mislead NHTSA?
First, some background about Toyota’s Japan and U.S. recalls.
NHTSA said yesterday that it opened an investigation into whether Toyota gave the agency timely notification of steering problems with nearly 1 million 4Runner SUVs, T100 pickups and Toyota Trucks before starting a September 2005 recall in the U.S.
Toyota had received 41 complaints from U.S. customers about fatigue cracks in the steering relay rods before October 2004, a spokeswoman for LaHood said.
That’s the month the company began its Japan recall of comparable Hilux and Hilux Surf vehicles for similar reasons.
In other words, Toyota knew of several dozen U.S. complaints at least 10½ months before beginning a U.S. recall. Automakers are required by law to notify NHTSA within five business days of safety defects.
Yet here’s what Toyota (TMC) told NHTSA in its 2004-05 letters.
Oct. 26, 2004: “Reason the affected vehicles sold in the U.S. are not involved in this recall: TMC has received field information from the Japanese market, but no similar information from the U.S. market has been received.”
Sept. 6, 2005: “End of October 2004: TMC conducted a safety campaign for the steering relay rod on certain Toyota Hilux and Hilux Surf vehicles in Japan. TMC considered that problem was the result of the unique operating condition in Japan, i.e. frequent standing full lock turns, such as for narrow parking spaces and close-quarter maneuvering. Although TMC did not receive similar information from the U.S., TMC continued monitoring field information and started to recover subject parts from markets other than Japan.”
Both letters were signed by Toyota Motor North America Vice President Chris Tinto, who previously worked for NHTSA.
The Toyota letters were obtained in litigation by San Mateo, Calif., lawyer John Kristensen. He sent them to NHTSA last Friday and requested an investigation.
The lawyer’s letter included excerpts from U.S. consumer complaints that he also had obtained from Toyota.
“Had this fracture in the center link occurred even 10 minutes later, I would have been traveling on the Long Island Expressway, and without steering, surely a horrific tragedy would have ensued,” Yigal Schacht of Queens, N.Y., wrote to Toyota in March 2002.
The lawyer’s request to NHTSA called for an investigation into “the wide chronological gaps and apparent falsehoods Toyota has provided.”
NHTSA’s document request to Toyota includes all consumer complaints, field reports, and crash reports before both recalls.
No one should be surprised if Mr. Toyoda or his subordinates find themselves in front of a congressional panel again before long.