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April 8, 2010

JAPAN: Toyota US exec sent ‘come clean’ email in January – report

A senior Toyota Motor executive in the United States warned in an email last January that the automaker needed to "come clean" on a safety defect that caused accelerator pedals to become stuck open, a Japanese media report said on Thursday.

A senior Toyota Motor executive in the United States warned in an email last January that the automaker needed to “come clean” on a safety defect that caused accelerator pedals to become stuck open, a Japanese media report said on Thursday.

The 16 January email from Irv Miller, at the time Toyota’s top US spokesman, was sent five days before the automaker launched a recall of about 2.3m vehicles to fix the sticky accelerator pedals, Reuters’ Japan bureau reported.

“We are not protecting our customers by keeping this quiet,” Miller was quoted as saying in his email. “The time to hide on this one is over. We need to come clean.”

Reuters said it obtained a copy of the document on Thursday – its release came as Toyota considers whether to appeal a US$16.4m fine proposed on Monday by the US Department of Transport.

According to the report, the email exchange between Miller and a Japanese colleague arguing against responding to media reports of mechanical failures highlights the gap in the level of urgency at the US arm and headquarters — a problem that Toyota later acknowledged contributed to delays in its responses.

Miller said in his email that senior US-based executives, Jim Lentz and Yoshimi Inaba, were travelling to Washington to meet with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to discuss the accelerator defect in mid-January.

“We better just hope that they can get NHTSA to work with us in coming [up] with a workable solution that does not put us out of business,” he said.

Miller’s email was sent to Katsuhiko Koganei, a Toyota executive on assignment from headquarters to coordinate communication at its US sales headquarters in California.

In the previous email in the chain, Koganei said that the automaker “should not mention about the mechanical failures of (the accelerator) pedal”.

He said the cause of the problem and the fix had not been determined and a statement by Toyota could raise public uneasiness.

The email from Miller, who was to retire a month later, was one of thousands of pages of internal correspondence collected by US government officials investigating Toyota.

The transportation department proposed the fine – the largest allowed by law – and said the automaker had knowingly delayed the recall for defective accelerator pedals.

Toyota has two weeks to decide whether to appeal that penalty for the first official finding that it violated US safety regulations.

Toyota spokesman Mike Michels on Thursday told Reuters the automaker had not yet determined its response, adding it would not comment on Miller’s email.

“We have publicly acknowledged on several occasions that the company did a poor job of communicating during the period preceding our recent recalls,” Toyota said in a statement.

“We have subsequently taken a number of important steps to improve our communications with regulators and customers on safety-related matters to ensure that this does not happen again.”

Reuters noted that NHTSA has said that Toyota executives including Lentz met with regulators on 19 January and were told that the agency expected Toyota to move quickly to address the accelerator problem.

At that point, relations between the automaker and US safety regulators had already become strained with US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood saying that Toyota had become “safety deaf”, officials have said.

Automakers are legally obligated to tell US safety regulators within five days if they determine that a safety defect exists.

US safety regulators said in proposing the record fine against Toyota that the automaker’s own records showed that it had issued repair notices for the sticky pedal problem in Canada and Europe in September but did not take action in the US until January.

“WE HAVE a tendency for MECHANICAL failure in accelerator pedals of a certain manufacturer on certain models,” Miller said in his email, using capital letters for emphasis.

Toyota issued a recall for pedals manufactured by supplier CTS on 21 January.

On 26 January, the automaker took the unprecedented step of halting sales of eight models, including its top-selling Camry sedan, as it worked to fix faulty accelerators on vehicles in company and dealer stock.

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