Toyota execs debated when to disclose accelerator-pedal problem

An executive for Toyota Motor Corp. in January urged colleagues in an e-mail to “not mention about the mechanical failures” of accelerator pedals in its vehicles, prompting a response from the company’s top U.S. spokesman that said, “We are not protecting our customers by keeping this quiet,” according to internal company documents reviewed by The Times.

“The time to hide on this one is over,” the e-mail from spokesman Irv Miller continued. “We need to come clean.”

The exchange, which occurred just days before a massive recall of Toyota vehicles to repair accelerator pedals, is the clearest indication so far that the Japanese carmaker was debating internally when to disclose that its accelerators pedals could become stuck and cause drivers to lose control of vehicles. At the time the e-mails were sent, the company was publicly blaming the problem on floor mats.

The automaker finally issued a recall covering 2.3 million U.S. vehicles on Jan. 21, five days after the e-mail exchange among executives at the company’s U.S. sales headquarters in Torrance. In the wake of the recalls, the company took the unprecedented step of shutting down North American factories and suspending sales while it implemented a fix for the problem.

The entire handling of the matter violated U.S. law, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which on Monday said it was seeking a record $16.4-million fine against Toyota for delaying disclosure of the pedal defect at least four months after identifying the problem. Toyota has said it’s considering how it will respond to the fine.

The e-mails began early on Jan. 16, with Katsuhiko Koganei, an executive from company headquarters in Japan assigned to the Torrance office as an “executive coordinator” for communications, urging a company spokesman to keep quiet about the matter and “not mention about the mechanical failures of pedal because we have not clarified the real cause of the sticking pedal formally and the remedy for the matter has not been confirmed.”

Koganei, who copied half a dozen Toyota officials with the e-mail, said he had discussed the issue with three other officials whom he identified only by last names and said “all of them are concerned about the comment with mechanical failures might raise another uneasiness of customers.”

The Koganei e-mail was sent to Toyota spokesman Mike Michels, who was trying to develop a strategy for responding to media inquiries into an incident in New Jersey, in which a customer got his Toyota Avalon into a dealership while the engine was racing out of control.

The company internally had determined that the cause of the incident was a sticky pedal, but Toyota had not yet disclosed the defect either to the public or federal safety regulators.

Miller, group vice president for environmental and public affairs, sent the reply that said he disagreed with keeping the matter secret. He added that top Toyota executives were traveling to Washington to discuss the company’s options with federal safety regulators. “We better just hope that they can get NHTSA to work with us in coming with a workable solution that does not put us out of business,” Miller said.

Miller retired from the company about two weeks later. He declined to comment on Wednesday when contacted at his home.

Company spokesman Michels said Wednesday that Miller’s resignation had been long planned and was unrelated to the issue involving the disclosure of the pedal defect.

The company also issued a statement Wednesday saying it could not comment directly on the Miller e-mail because it was a private communication.

But the statement added, “We have publicly acknowledged on several occasions that the company did a poor job of communicating during the period preceding our recent recalls. We have subsequently taken a number of important steps to improve our communications with regulators and customers on safety-related matters to ensure that this does not happen again.”

The e-mails were among 70,000 documents that the Transportation Department requested from Toyota in its inquiry into the company’s handling of the acceleration issue. The department gave those documents to Congress. The e-mail exchange was first reported online by the Associated Press on Monday.

The e-mail exchange about how to respond to the New Jersey incident was prompted by a request for comment by ABC News, Michels said. At the time, Toyota was insisting that the only cause of sudden acceleration involved out-of-place floor mats that could jam the accelerator pedal.

“There wasn’t any direction to conceal or not disclose information within Toyota,” Michels said. “It was eagerness to get the information out there.”

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood was sharply critical of Toyota’s disclosure practices this week, saying after the $16.4-million fine levied Monday that it was simply the first issue that came under examination and that other fines are possible.