US demands details on Toyota’s recall decisions

Automaker will idle 2 US plants

By Ken Thomas and Stephen Manning
Associated Press / February 17, 2010

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WASHINGTON - The Transportation Department demanded documents related to Toyota’s massive recalls in the United States yesterday, to find out if the automaker acted swiftly enough. Toyota, meanwhile, said it will idle production temporarily at two plants - in San Antonio and in Georgetown, Ky. - over concerns the recalls could lead to big stockpiles of unsold vehicles.

Toyota must tell the government when and how it learned of safety defects in millions of vehicles that could cause the entrapment of gas pedals by floor mats and sticky accelerators. The company must respond within 60 days or face fines.

The intensifying government investigation and production halts follow the recall of 8.5 million vehicles by the world’s number one automaker. Toyota faces separate probes by the Obama administration and Congress.

Spokesman Mike Goss said the Texas plant, which builds the Tundra pickup truck, would take production breaks for the weeks of March 15 and April 12. The Kentucky plant, which makes the Camry, Avalon, and Venza vehicles, plans to take a nonproduction day on Feb. 26 and may not build vehicles on three more days in March and April.

Toyota employs 1,850 workers in San Antonio and about 6,850 in Georgetown.

In late January, Toyota halted production of recalled brands throughout the United States for about a week.

The requests from the government, similar to subpoenas, follow criticism from consumer groups that the Transportation Department was too soft on the automaker.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has defended his department, calling the Japanese automaker “a little safety deaf.’’ LaHood said the government urged Toyota to issue recalls and sent federal officials to Japan to warn the problems were serious.

Automakers must notify the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within five days of determining that a safety defect exists.

Government investigators are looking into whether Toyota discovered the problems during preproduction or post-production, whether recalls covered all affected vehicles, and whether the company learned of the problems through consumer complaints or internal tests.

Federal officials are focusing on the two major issues: gas pedals that can become lodged on floor mats and pedal systems that are “sticky,’’ making it harder for drivers to press on the pedal or ease up on the gas.

The government seeks detailed timelines on when Toyota became aware of the problems, how it handled complaints, how much it has paid out in warranty claims over pedal problems, internal communications about pedals, and company officials involved in making decisions about the issue.

It also wants to know how seriously Toyota considered the possibility that electronics of the gas pedal system play a role. The company has said tests show that the electronics were not to blame.

Several committees of Congress are also investigating, with hearings planned soon.