Toyota issued internal repair procedures to its own distributors in 31 European countries about sticking accelerator pedals months before it warned U.S. regulators about the problem — and on the same day it told the U.S. government it would conduct a recall over loose floor mats, according to Toyota documents obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood earlier this week cited the Sept. 29 European warnings in his decision to assess a record $16.4 million fine on the Japanese automaker for failing to alert the U.S. government to its safety problems quickly enough. LaHood on Tuesday said Toyota made a "huge mistake" by not disclosing safety problems with gas pedals on some of its most popular models sooner.
Detailed chronologies provided by Toyota to the government and obtained by the AP show rising concerns at the end of 2009 about sticking gas pedals and complaints from Toyota owners in the U.S. about the problem. According to the documents, Toyota's European division issued technical information to the European distributors "identifying a production improvement and repair procedure to address complaints by customers in those countries of sticking accelerator pedals, sudden rpm increase and/or sudden vehicle acceleration."
On the same day, Toyota told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of its decision to recall several Toyota and Lexus vehicle models "to address the risk of accelerator pedal entrapment by all-weather floor mats," according to a timeline of the company's handling of the floor mat recall. The two timelines, entitled "preliminary chronology of principal events," were provided to the government on March 24.
Toyota has said the problems involved separate issues and in the case of the sticking gas pedals, the problem was related to the buildup of condensation on sliding surfaces in the accelerator system that helps drivers push down or release the gas pedal.
The documents obtained by AP were among 70,000 pages of papers turned over to government investigators. They detail internal communications and testing of the sticking pedals before Toyota presented its findings to NHTSA four months later, during a meeting in Washington on Jan. 19. Two days later, Toyota announced it would recall 2.3 million vehicles to address the sticking pedals.
On Oct. 7, according to the timeline, a staff member of Toyota's product planning and management division at the company's headquarters in Japan sent a Toyota colleague in North America a copy of engineering change instructions describing the same design changes for the accelerator pedal of a Toyota RAV4 as was implemented in Europe.
Two weeks later, the timeline says a member of the product planning team in North America received a call from a colleague in Japan "instructing him not to implement the (engineering change instructions) noted above."
Toyota notified NHTSA in November 2009 of three cases of sticking pedals in Corollas sold in the United States that were reported to the company in late October. In November and December, Toyota engineers examined pedals from the Corollas and "concluded that the phenomenon experienced in the United States was essentially the same as the phenomenon experienced in Europe."
In mid-January, Toyota held internal meetings "to discuss status of production changes and to prepare for meetings with NHTSA" on Jan. 19, according to the timeline.
LaHood told reporters in Chicago on Tuesday that he wouldn't be surprised if a review of documents from Toyota Motor Corp. uncovered additional safety lapses by the Japanese automaker.
"This is the first thing that we have found. It may not be the last thing," LaHood said, adding that "it would not surprise me if we discovered other information."
Under federal law, automakers must notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within five days of determining that a safety defect exists and promptly conduct a recall.
Toyota, in a statement Tuesday, said it "has and will continue to practice its philosophy of satisfying consumers with high quality vehicles that are safe and reliable, and responding to consumer feedback with honesty and integrity."
Toyota has recalled more than 6 million vehicles in the U.S. and a total of more than 8 million worldwide because of acceleration problems in multiple models and braking issues in the Prius hybrid.
The Japanese automaker was still weighing its options on Tuesday about whether to accept or contest the fine. The proposed fine is the most the government could levy, but further penalties are possible under continuing federal investigations. LaHood declined to speculate on whether Toyota will face additional fines.
Toyota's fine of $16.375 million is the largest ever levied on an automaker and dwarfs the previous record: In 2004, General Motors paid a $1 million fine for responding too slowly on a recall of nearly 600,000 vehicles over windshield wiper failure.
The fine is just one of several problems Toyota continues to face related to its recalls. Toyota has also been named in 138 potential class-action lawsuits over falling vehicle values and nearly 100 personal injury and wrongful death cases in federal courts nationwide.
Still, Toyota's sales have stabilized over the last month thanks in large part to generous sales incentives. On Tuesday, Toyota said it would continue to offer most of its sales incentives in April after the discounts helped drive up sales more than 40 percent last month. The incentives include cheap leases, zero-percent financing and a two-year free maintenance program.
The government has linked 52 deaths to crashes allegedly involving sudden acceleration in Toyotas. The recalls have led to congressional hearings, a criminal investigation by federal prosecutors, dozens of lawsuits and an intense review by the Transportation Department.
Toyota has attributed the problem to sticking gas pedals and accelerators that can become jammed in floor mats. Dealers have fixed 1.7 million vehicles under recall so far. The sticking accelerator pedal recall involves the 2007-10 Camry, 2009-10 Corolla, 2009-10 Matrix, 2005-10 Avalon, 2010 Highlander and 2007-10 Tundra.
Consumer groups have suggested electronics could be the culprit, and dozens of Toyota owners who had their cars fixed in the recall have complained of more problems with their vehicles surging forward unexpectedly. Toyota says it has found no evidence of an electrical problem.
Reviews of some recent high-profile crashes in San Diego and suburban New York have failed to find either mechanical or electronic problems. In the New York case, a police investigation found that the driver, not the car, was to blame.
Following the recalls, the Transportation Department demanded in February that Toyota turn over documents detailing when and how it learned of the problems with sticking accelerators and with floor mats trapping gas pedals.