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Published: Wednesday, 2/10/2010

Toyota workers become lobbyists for a day

FROM THE BLADE'S NEWS SERVICES

WASHINGTON - Jim Shuker, who tests vehicles for Toyota, says he feels so strongly about quality that he believes he personally failed by not finding the company's acceleration problem.

Mr. Shuker was among 23 Toyota workers from across the country who were flown to Washington at company expense to fight yesterday for their employer's reputation.

They're trying to sway lawmakers just as several congressional committees have launched investigations of Toyota's response - and that of the government - to complaints about sticking gas pedals in numerous models and brakes on the 2010 Prius hybrid.

It's part of an all-out drive by the world's biggest auto manufacturer to redeem its once unassailable brand - hit anew yesterday as Toyota's global recall ballooned to 8.5 million cars and trucks. The day's safety recall of 440,000 of its flagship Prius and other hybrids underscored a determination to keep buyers' faith from sinking to unrecoverable depths.

The company is sending the message through its professional lobbyists, its dealers, and now the workers who say they're always ready to pull the cord that stops an assembly line if something is wrong.

"I feel I failed customers by not finding this issue," Mr. Shuker said of the unintended acceleration problem. "We were not able to duplicate it."

Mr. Shuker, who works at Toyota's proving grounds in Wittmann, Ariz., said he was not aware of the problems before they exploded in the media.

Marge Schwendemann, who works at the company's Bodine Aluminum plant in Troy, Mo., is a quality control specialist who said she could confront the facility's top manager any time she finds a flawed engine bracket, cylinder head, or cylinder block made there.

Toyota President Akio Toyoda bows as he makes a statement at a news conference in Tokyo. At left is Shinichi Sasaki, who oversees quality control.  Toyota President Akio Toyoda bows as he makes a statement at a news conference in Tokyo. At left is Shinichi Sasaki, who oversees quality control.
SHIZUO KAMBAYASHI / AP Enlarge

She said the company's problems were "blown out of proportion."

Fibbiyon Miller, who works in the Huntsville, Ala., plant, said she still has faith in the company and the plant that makes V6 and V8 engines for Toyota trucks.

"Toyota is not on a pedestal any more," she said. "But I think we're still tops in my eyes, high in quality and safety."

In addition to sending workers to Washington as lobbyists, Toyota is running apologetic TV ads and vowing to win back customers' trust. Behind the scenes, the besieged car maker is trying to learn all it can about congressional investigations, maybe even steer them if it can.

The confidential strategy includes efforts to sway upcoming hearings on Capitol Hill and is based on experiences by companies that have survived similar consumer and political crises - and those that haven't.

Rep. Bart Stupak (D., Mich.) said Toyota representatives visited his offices seeking to learn all they could.

"They're probing us. 'What are you going to ask us, where are you going with this whole thing?'•" said Mr. Stupak, the chairman of a House subcommittee looking into Toyota's problems.

Toyota, which reported spending more than $4 million on lobbying last year, declined to discuss details of its plans.

The company has "beefed up our team" by hiring additional lobbyists, lawyers, and public relations experts to "work with regulators and lawmakers collaboratively towards a successful recall effort, ensuring proper, diligent compliance," spokesman Cindy Knight said in an e-mail to the Associated Press.

Professionals who have waged major damage-control struggles say the best strategy for Toyota mixes apology, openness, details about a specific fix - plus a little help from friends on Capitol Hill.

Toyota is expected to turn to its natural allies - lawmakers from states with Toyota plants or offices.

Friendly legislators can limit the duration of congressional hearings and ask favorable questions that would give Toyota officials a chance to tell their side of the story.

The recall announced yesterday will fix a software glitch in the brake systems of the Prius and other hybrid models that apparently has caused brief and sometimes frightening delays in perceived braking capacity on icy or bumpy roads.

The fix, which dealers can make in about 40 minutes, will apply to 223,000 hybrids sold in Japan, along with 133,000 Prius cars and 14,500 Lexus HS250h vehicles in the United States.

In other developments yesterday:

•Toyota said it is also recalling about 7,300 of its 2010 Camrys to check a power-steering hose that may be in contact with a brake tube. The contact could create a hole in the tube, leading to loss of brake fluid and longer stopping distances, Toyota said.

•State Farm, the largest U.S. auto insurer, said it had informed federal regulators late in 2007 about growing reports of unexpected acceleration in Toyotas. That disclosure raised new questions about whether the government missed clues about problems.

•Congressional investigators cited growing evidence that not all the causes of Toyota's acceleration problems have been identified. A staff memo from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which had planned an oversight hearing for today, said there was substantial evidence that remedies such as redesigned floor mats have failed to solve problems. The hearing was postponed until Feb. 24 because of snow in Washington.

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D., Calif.) said that while Toyota was reassuring the public in the last two weeks that it had identified the cause, it was telling House investigators that getting to the bottom of the issue was very difficult. That leaves open the possibility that it had not identified all of the potential root causes of the condition that has been blamed on 19 deaths and more than 300 crashes over the last eight years, he said.

•Federal safety officials said they were examining complaints from Toyota Corolla owners about steering problems.



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