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Published: Tuesday, 5/11/2010

Toyota vows more openness on defects

LOS ANGELES TIMES

TOYOTA CITY, Japan - Standing side by side, Toyota Motor Corp. President Akio Toyoda and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood yesterday vowed to improve communication as U.S. regulators continued their scrutiny of quality breakdowns that led to a major recall of Toyota vehicles.

At a wide-ranging news conference held at Toyota headquarters here, Mr. Toyoda pledged that the Japanese carmaker was "sharing information across regions on a more timely basis," adding, "This is contributing to quick action."

Mr. Toyoda also promised to improve quality assurance in all Toyota vehicles. "I have devoted myself to advancing this effort by leading a new Special Committee for Global Quality," he said. "It is my top priority."

His company has established a North America Quality Advisory Fund, chaired by former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, and has also appointed a chief quality officer for North America.

Mr. LaHood had arrived in Japan promising to deliver the world's leading automaker a stern message that U.S. regulators will not tolerate safety violations that endanger the public.

The transportation secretary's trip, a rare high-level meeting between a U.S. Cabinet secretary and a Japanese manufacturer over safety concerns, comes as both sides continue to feel the glare of public scrutiny. Since last fall, Toyota has issued nearly 11 million recall notices for its vehicles worldwide and faces a host of political, legal, and regulatory probes.

But the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has also come under fire for its handling of the Toyota defect scandal. In the last eight years, the agency closed multiple investigations involving Toyota despite thousands of complaints and allegations of several dozen deaths caused by sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles.

When asked at the news conference if Toyota had purposely withheld information from the safety agency related to a 2004 steering rod relay recall, Mr. Toyoda said: "We do tend to take time getting down to the cause of problems, but we have never hidden information or attempted to conceal anything since our company started."

Associated Press found that Toyota waited nearly a year in 2005 to recall trucks and sport utility vehicles in the United States with defective steering rods, despite issuing a similar recall in Japan and receiving dozens of reports from U.S. motorists about rods that snapped without warning.

The gap between the Japanese and U.S. recalls - similar to Toyota's handling of the recent recall for sudden acceleration problems - triggered a new investigation yesterday by the safety agency.

Toyota recently agreed to pay the U.S. government a record $16.4-million civil fine - the maximum allowed by law - on charges that it delayed recalls on its defective accelerators for months.

Officials of the safety agency have said they are conducting several investigations to determine whether Toyota violated U.S. safety laws and may issue additional fines. The automaker also faces more than 100 customer lawsuits.

Mr. LaHood announced that he will also visit two other Japanese automakers - Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. - on this trip.

Mr. Toyoda said he planned to visit the United States more often and to personally explain to customers the improvements being made.



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