U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Wednesday that the government now is looking into complaints about problems with brakes on Toyota's popular Prius hybrid sedan, after reports that Japan's government has asked the company to investigate the issue.
LaHood also advised drivers of Toyota vehicles recalled because of sudden acceleration problems to get their vehicles fixed quickly, which will be a major task for the automaker given the number of vehicles involved. Toyota Motor Corp. has recalled 2.3 million cars and trucks in the U.S. because of the pedal problem.
"I want to encourage owners of any recalled Toyota models to contact their local dealer and get their vehicles fixed as soon as possible," he said.
LaHood said that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration "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. We will continue to investigate all possible causes of these safety issues."
Toyota responded Wednesday that unless people are experiencing problems with their vehicle, the autos are safe to drive.
"Our message to Toyota owners is this: If you experience any issues with your accelerator pedal, please contact your dealer without delay," the company said. "If you are not experiencing any issues with your pedal, we are confident that your vehicle is safe to drive."
Toyota also said it appreciated LaHood's clarification of his remarks today about the carmaker's recall for sticking accelerator pedals. LaHood initially said in a congressional hearing that drivers of the recalled cars should stop driving them.
"We want to make sure our customers understand that this situation is rare and generally does not occur suddenly. In the rare instances where it does it occur, the vehicle can be controlled with firm and steady application of the brakes," the company said.
LaHood also strongly defended the actions of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which reports to him, in the investigation of sudden acceleration due to gas pedal problems in several models made by Toyota that has led to a massive recall by the company.
LaHood's strong initial comments could cause some "hysteria, but to some extent we are such a litigious society, he has no choice but to say that because of the lawsuits that are lined up," said Rebecca Lindland, director of the autos group for IHS Global Insight, an economic forecasting firm in Lexington, Mass. "If one more person is killed, they can say that the government didn't act; Toyota did not act."
Toyota's stock dropped sharply Wednesday after LaHood gave his initial advice. The shares dropped $4.12 to $74.09 in midday trading and at one point dipped as low as $71.90
Bill Adams, a Transportation Department spokesman, tried to clarify LaHood's comments.
"The DOT is advising owners of recalled vehicles to contact their local dealerships to arrange for fixes as soon as possible," he said.
In Japan, the Transport Ministry said it has received 14 complaints about the brakes on the new-generation Prius, which was introduced last year. The agency said it is looking into the complaints but did not know whether there was a genuine problem.
Complaints about Prius brakes in Japan and the U.S. could be an issue with people's unfamiliarity with the feel of some hybrid braking systems, which take the energy from braking and cycle it back into the drivetrain, Lindland said. .
The growing issue over sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles and the massive recall might have sensitized consumers to anything unusual in the cars, she said.
"We are in a bit of a chaotic mode right now. Brakes do feel differently in a hybrid because of the regeneration process. People need to recognize that these brakes sometimes feel different. The unintended acceleration is a much greater issue," Lindland said.
On Tuesday, Apple Inc. co-founder Steve "Woz" Wozniak said he was surprised several months ago when his 2010 Prius started accelerating on its own to as many as 97 mph when he used cruise control to increase the vehicle's speed. He said he had to tap the brakes to stop the car from accelerating.
Other consumers have complained about the same issue, Lindland said, and it could be a result of the differences in the way speed in Toyota's cruise control system in hybrid vehicles are set compared with similar systems in conventional vehicles.
Toyota officials said Wozniak and others might not have a clear understand of how their cruise control system works. Each tap up on the cruise control button increases the speed by a 5-mph increment, said Mike Michels, a Toyota spokesman.
Most cruise controls speed the car when the button is depressed, and then set the speed when the pressure is released. Both systems shut off when the driver depresses the brake pedal.
"What we think it might be is that the cruise control system in his vehicle is a laser-type cruise control that maintains a distance to the vehicle in front. . . . And so it is possible maybe there is a misunderstanding how it works," Michels said.
As for the current gas pedal recall, LaHood said government officials acted quickly and forcefully. During a breakfast with reporters here Wednesday sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor, LaHood's staff distributed a 2 1/2 -page handout that included a timeline of actions by the NHTSA since March 2007 on the issue.
Despite eight investigations by NHTSA dating to 2003 of sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles, the problem continued through last year until the large-scale recall began.
"The recalls involving pedal entrapment and possible sticky gas pedals on Toyota vehicles are some of the largest in automobile history. Every step of the way, NHTSA . . . officials pushed Toyota to take corrective action so that consumers would be safe," LaHood said in a short written statement before answering questions. "Today, Toyota is apparently taking the right steps to address these safety issues. Unfortunately it took much effort to get to this point."
Those efforts include NHTSA officials flying to Japan in December for personal meetings "to clarify for Toyota management what the company's legal obligations are to find and remedy safety defects" and a meeting at the U.S. Transportation Department's Washington headquarters last month with Toyota's North American president, Yoshi Inaba, in which "NHTSA indicated in no uncertain terms that we expected prompt action" on the acceleration issue, LaHood said.
He said consumers "can rest assured that NHTSA will closely monitor implementation of the recall."
"NHTSA is one of the Department of Transportation's leading safety agency and its people have been diligent and dogged in carrying out their responsibility," LaHood said. "NHTSA is not finished with this safety matter concerning Toyota. NHTSA will continue to monitor the gas pedal issue and look for any additional safety defects that may be causing unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles."
LaHood said he intended to speak directly with Toyota President Akio Toyoda "very soon" to make sure the company gets the message from the U.S. government that the company needs to take aggressive action to resolve the sudden acceleration problems.
"I think they're pretty close to getting it, and the reason I'm going to talk to Mr. Toyoda is I think after I talk to him, I think they'll get it. This is serious. This is very serious," LaHood said. Toyota is doing everything now to correct the problem, he added, "but we're going to keep the pressure on them."
Asked whether NHTSA did enough to address the issue in 2007 and 2008, which was before LaHood took office in early 2009, he said his review found the agency did.
"I'm not going to lay any blame or credit off on anybody else. I'm the secretary of Transportation. If there's credit, I'll take it; if there's blame, I'll take it. I'm not going to lay it off on anybody else. But I think our NHTSA people stepped up here, alerted the public, talked to Toyota, held Toyota's feet to the fire and that's why we're where we're at today."