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Toyota's Lentz to spell out flaws, fixes

Thu, 20 May 2010 00:00:00 -0700

Toyota has taken several steps to improve its flawed quality control procedures, the company's U.S. sales chief plans to tell Congress today.

But Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. President Jim Lentz will say that the company has found no evidence that its electronic throttle-control technology caused unintended acceleration of vehicles.

“We now understand that we need to improve our communication with customers about the features, characteristics and normal functions of our vehicles,” Lentz will say in prepared remarks.

He will appear before the House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee on oversight, which is holding a hearing to review what Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have done in the last few months to identify and address the causes of unintended acceleration.

It will be the second time for Lentz on the hot seat in Washington. He appeared there in February following the recall of about 8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles worldwide for unintended acceleration.

Toyota now faces hundreds of lawsuits in connection with the safety crisis and has already paid a $16.4 million fine for delays in notifying regulators about safety defects in gas pedals. Additional penalties could be assessed if the Transportation Department finds evidence the company delayed other recalls.

Lentz will tell the committee that Toyota has made progress in its quality control systems.

“We are taking major steps to become a more responsive, safety focused organization -- listening more closely to our customers, responding more quickly to their concerns and those of our regulators and taking concrete actions,” he plans to tell the committee.

But he will add that Toyota “remains confident that our electronic throttle-control system is not a cause of unintended acceleration.”

Progress report

Lentz will outline several steps the company has taken, including:

-- Establishment of a special global quality committee to review all aspects of operations including design, manufacturing and after-market support.

-- Appointment of U.S. manufacturing executive Steve St. Angelo as chief quality officer for North America.

Lentz says St. Angelo will “act as the voice of the customer and has a direct line to (Toyota President Akio) Toyoda when it comes to ensuring our customers' safety.”

He cites “speed and decisiveness” last month when Toyota recalled the 2010 Lexus GX 460 after Consumers Reports magazine identified a software problem with the vehicle's stability control system.

“Within a week we had replicated the test, developed a software fix, communicated our findings to NHTSA and initiated a voluntary recall.”

-- Formation of a special team called SMART (for Swift Market Analysis Response Team) that is comprised of 200 engineers and field technicians who can be deployed anywhere in the country to investigate customer reports of unintended acceleration.

Lentz says the company has already completed more than 600 on-site vehicle inspections under the evaluation process. He said dealership technicians have completed an additional 1,400 inspections under the program.

-- Making more safety features standard on its vehicles, including brake override and event data recorders. By the end of 2010, all new Toyota and Lexus vehicles will have event data recorders that can record both pre- and post-crash data.

-- Formation of a North American quality advisory panel, headed by former Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, to examine the company's technology, specifically the electronic throttle-control system.

Lentz will testify that about 3.5 million recalled vehicles have been fixed -- 1.7 million for sticky pedals; 1.6 million for floor mat entrapment and 118,000 to update anti-lock brake systems in the 2010 Prius and Lexus models.

Says Lentz: “We continue to reach out to all affected owners to make sure they bring their vehicles to dealers for attention.”

By Kathy Jackson- Automotive News