Toyota scrambles to address brake complaints

Toyota scrambled on Thursday to address jitters about the brakes on its best-selling Prius hybrid car as the US government and Congress clamoured for answers over a global safety recall.

US authorities have reported more than 100 complaints of brake problems on the Prius, while the world’s biggest car maker said it had received 77 complaints in Japan by the end of last year.

Toyota is already recalling almost eight million vehicles worldwide — roughly its entire global sales figure last year — to fix problems with accelerator pedals that are slow to spring back or that stick to floor mats.

The latest bad news threatens the popularity of the Prius hybrid, an electric-petrol car that has made Toyota the leader in the fast-growing global market for fuel-efficient, green vehicles.

Japanese Consumer Affairs Minister Mizuho Fukushima met with Mitsuru Takada, Toyota’s managing officer, on Thursday, urging him to address the complaints about the Prius, media reports said.

The US government stepped up pressure on Toyota over its handling of the safety concerns, while members of Congress want proof that the problems are mechanical and not a more complex one related to electronics or software.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Wednesday vowed that US officials will “continue to hold Toyota’s feet to the fire to make sure that they are doing everything they have promised to make their vehicles safe”.

LaHood caused a flurry when he said that owners of Toyotas affected by the accelerator defect should “stop driving” them and take them to a dealer. He later called the remark “obviously a misstatement”.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak said this week he believed Toyota’s troubles with the defective accelerator might be linked to “some bad software” after his Prius sped up while in cruise-control.

LaHood said he would raise US concerns with Akio Toyoda, the Toyota family scion named a year ago to steer the car maker, while his agency is studying penalties for safety violations that could amount to millions of dollars.

The gas pedal problems have been blamed for several accidents, including a crash in San Diego last year in which four family members in a Lexus were killed when their car sped up on a highway and crashed in a ball of flames.

Toyota said on Tuesday its US sales had slid 8,7% in January, when it stopped sales of eight models linked to the recall, leaving it in third place on the American market behind General Motors and Ford.

The latest woes have hit the car maker just as it was starting to emerge from its worst crisis in decades, although the full brunt of the recalls and production halts will not be reflected until later.

Worldwide, Toyota made a surprise return to profit in the July to September quarter as sales bounced back from the depths of the global economic downturn.

Sales in Japan have been boosted by the Prius — in part due to a US-style “cash for clunkers” programme designed to lift sales of greener cars — but now the popular hybrid’s safety is itself under question.

“If they have to announce they will suspend sales of the Prius this afternoon, that would have an enormous impact on the car maker,” Tokai Tokyo Securities auto analyst Mamoru Kato said.

He noted that the Prius is in the vanguard of Toyota’s target to sell one million hybrids around the world early in this decade.

“If consumers lose confidence in hybrid cars, which have complicated technology that is very different from conventional gasoline cars, that would have a grave impact on Toyota’s sales,” Kato said. — AFP

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