LaHood says he misspoke on advice to Toyota owners; replacement parts arrive for vehicles

WASHINGTON (AP) - Americans should park their recalled Toyotas
unless driving to dealers for accelerator repairs, Transportation
Secretary Ray LaHood warned Wednesday - then quickly took it back -
as skepticism of company fixes grew and the government's probe
expanded to other models in the U.S. and Japan. Questions now are
being raised about the brakes on Toyota's marquee Prius hybrid.
The Prius was not part of the most recent recall, but Japan's
transport ministry ordered the company to investigate complaints of
brake problems with the hybrid. LaHood said his department, too,
was looking into brake problems.
Toyota spokeswoman Ririko Takeuchi said Thursday in Tokyo that
the automaker was aware of 77 complaints in Japan about braking
problems for the Prius, just a day after the Japanese government
had confirmed 14 complaints had come in on the same Prius braking
problems. About 100 complaints over Prius brakes have been filed in
the U.S.
Harried dealers began receiving parts to repair defective gas
pedals in millions of vehicles and said they'd be extending their
hours deep into the night to try and catch up. Toyota said that
would solve the problem - which it said was extremely rare - of
cars unaccountably accelerating.
At a congressional hearing, LaHood said his advice to an owner
of a recalled Toyota would be to "stop driving it. Take it to a
Toyota dealer because they believe they have a fix for it." His
comments prompted new questions and rattled Toyota stockholders,
causing shares to plunge 8 percent before they recovered, declining
6 percent for the day.
LaHood later told reporters, "What I said in there was
obviously a misstatement. What I meant to say ... was if you own
one of these cars or if you're in doubt, take it to the dealer and
they're going to fix it."
Adding to Toyota's woes, LaHood said his department had received
new complaints about electronics and would undertake a broad
review, looking beyond Toyota vehicles, into whether automobile
engines could be disrupted by electromagnetic interference caused
by power lines or other sources. Toyota has said it investigated
for electronic problems and failed to find a single case pointing
that direction.
Toyota Motor Corp., in a statement, said if owners were
experiencing problems with the accelerator pedal "please contact
your dealer without delay. If you are not experiencing any issues
with your pedal, we are confident that your vehicle is safe to
drive."
But the damage was done for many drivers.
Meredyth Waterman, who bought a 2010 Toyota Corolla in December,
said the alarming statements from Washington confused her and she
planned to wait until her dealer told her to come get the fix to
bring her car in for repairs.
"If it is largely believed to be a rare instance, why would he
tell people to stop driving their cars?" asked Waterman, of
Burrillville, R.I. "It was an irresponsible thing to say."
The confusion came as the world's No. 1 automaker dealt with
fresh probes in the U.S. and Japan over the Prius, the best-selling
gas-electric hybrid, and growing interest from congressional and
other government investigators. Toyota has shut down several new
vehicle assembly lines and is rushing parts to dealers to fix
problems with the accelerators, trying to preserve a reputation of
building safe, durable vehicles.
Since October, Toyota first recalled about 5 million vehicles
over problems with floor mats trapping gas pedals and now, in a
recall announced Jan. 21, some 2.3 million vehicles amid concerns
that gas pedals could become stuck or slow to return to the idle
position. The latest recall involves 2009-10 RAV4 crossovers,
2009-10 Corollas, 2009-10 Matrix hatchbacks, 2005-10 Avalons,
2007-10 Camrys, 2010 Highlander crossovers, 2007-10 Tundra pickups
and 2008-10 Sequoia SUVs.
Toyota has said excess friction in the gas pedal assembly could
in rare cases cause the pedals to stick. Engineers traced the
problem to a friction device in the assembly that is supposed to
provide the proper pedal "feel" by adding resistance.
Lawmakers who are now digging into the recalls said they would
also look into the Prius. Rep. Bart Stupak, chairman of the House
Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee, said his panel
would request a briefing from Toyota officials about the hybrid.
New York Rep. Edolphus Towns, chairman of the House Oversight
and Government Reform Committee, sought more information about the
acceleration issue from Yoshi Inaba, chairman and CEO of Toyota
Motor North America and asked the question on the minds of Toyota
owners: "Is it safe to drive the Toyota models that have been
recalled?"
Towns' committee, which is planning a Feb. 10 hearing, also
wants more details on how Toyota handled complaints about pedal
entrapment, reports of stuck accelerators and electrical problems.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the committee's top Republican, also
wrote Toyota and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
officials seeking documents on the Prius and other investigations.
Other panels in the House and Senate also are planning hearings.
Many consumer groups have questioned whether Toyota's fix will
work and have asserted it could be connected to problems with the
electronic throttle control systems.
Joan Claybrook, who formerly lead Public Citizen, a watchdog
group, noted that Toyota told owners during last year's recall to
remove floor mats to keep the accelerator pedal from becoming
jammed. "I don't think that's what the issue is. I think it has to
be electronic when it slam dunks and takes off and goes 120 miles
an hour," Claybrook said.
LaHood, who plans to speak with Toyota President Akio Toyoda
about the recalls, said the government is considering civil
penalties against the carmaker. But he also said that it appeared
"Toyota is making an all-out effort to do all that they can to fix
these cars."
The Obama administration has been forced to backtrack on several
statements during its first year, though LaHood's warning was
particularly striking.
Last year, when LaHood suggested the administration consider
taxing motorists based on how many miles they drive instead of how
much gasoline they buy, his comments were quickly rejected by the
White House. Vice President Joe Biden triggered a day of
backtracking after publicly swearing off trains and planes because
of swine flu worries.
LaHood's comments irked many dealers, who have been fielding
calls from nervous customers for days. Most dealers are just
getting the parts, a steel shim a couple of millimeters thick, to
be inserted in the pedal assembly to address the potential sticking
problem.
The secretary "has the best of intentions, but unfortunately we
can't fix 100 cars at the same time," said Adam Lee, head of Lee
Auto Malls and owner of a Toyota dealership in Topsham, Maine.
"I'm sure he has the best of intentions but it may not be very
constructive for us."
Earl Stewart, who owns a Toyota dealership in North Palm Beach,
Fla., said LaHood's comments "could instill panic." Stewart was
expecting to begin making repairs - at half an hour per vehicle -
later Wednesday.
"We're leaving our service department open 'til the last
customer tonight," he said. "After Ray LaHood's statement, it
might be all night."
---
AP Business Writer Dan Strumpf in New York and Associated Press
writers Larry Margasak and Andrew Taylor in Washington contributed
to this report.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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