Toyota apologises to Japanese public over recalls

Toyota took full-page ads in major Japanese newspapers today to apologise for massive recalls and began fixing braking faults on two problem hybrid models as pressure mounted on the car maker to come clean over defects.

Toyota Motor Corporation president Akio Toyoda was due to give an update at the company’s Tokyo headquarters today on the global recalls and quality control efforts as the world’s biggest car maker struggles to salvage its reputation.

Toyota faces a growing investigation by the US government as politicians call for Mr Toyoda to appear at a February 24 congressional committee hearing examining the problem of sticky accelerator pedals behind an earlier global recall.

Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles worldwide during the past four months because of problems with sticking accelerator pedals, floor mats trapping accelerators and faulty brake programming.

Toyota’s advertisements in national newspapers focused on the recalls in Japan, which affect the Prius gas-electric hybrid and two other hybrids – the Sai, sold only in Japan, and the Lexus HS250h, also sold in North America.

The newspaper notice asks owners to bring their cars to Toyota and Lexus dealers from today. The fix on the Prius began last week.

“We apologise from the bottom of our hearts for the great inconvenience and worries that we have caused you all,” the black-and-white ads say.

Toyota has published similar ads of apology in US papers. Toyota has also stopped airing TV ads in Japan for models affected by the recall, although it has continued them for other models.

Toyota in Japan had no immediate comment on the order yesterday from the US Transportation Department to hand over documents related to its massive recalls.

The department wants to know how long the car maker knew of safety defects before taking action.

Toyota’s US unit said in a statement that it “takes its responsibility to advance vehicle safety seriously and to alert government officials of any safety issue in a timely manner”.

“We are reviewing NHTSA’s request and will co-operate to provide all the information they have requested,” it said.

Toyota must respond within 30 to 60 days or face fines.

Reports of deaths in the US connected to sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles have surged in recent weeks, with the alleged death toll reaching 34 since 2000, according to new consumer data gathered by the US government.

Under US law, car makers must notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within five days of determining that a safety defect exists and promptly conduct a recall.

Transportation secretary Ray LaHood has said the government is considering civil penalties for Toyota over its handling of the recalls. The maximum fine is more than €11.5m.

The largest auto industry fine came in 2004, when General Motors paid €734,000 for responding too slowly on a recall of nearly 600,000 vehicles over windscreen wiper failure.

The probe extends beyond Toyota’s US operations, a request that safety experts said was unprecedented for a US agency tasked with regulating vehicles domestically.

The agency is seeking information on Toyota vehicles sold overseas and also subject to US recalls for problems with sticking accelerator pedals.

Toyota told the NHTSA in January that the problem appeared in Europe beginning in December 2008. Toyota said it began fixes on that in August 2008, but the company failed to link that with accelerator pedal problems in the US, which surfaced last October.

NHTSA also wants to know how seriously Toyota considered the possibility that electronics of the accelerator pedal system might play a role. Toyota has said tests show that electronics were not to blame.

Meanwhile Toyota also suspended production at some of its US plants.

It has also temporarily suspended production of the Sai and Lexus HS250h hybrids in Japan until it comes up with the software fix.

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