Ford addresses hybrid braking issue as Toyota president vows to lead task force

By Frank Ahrens and Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010; A10

Automaker response to squishy-feeling brakes on hybrid vehicles spread beyond Toyota to Ford on Friday, and the president of Toyota held a surprise news conference in Japan, apologizing for safety problems that have led to massive vehicle recalls around the globe.

Ford said it will install a software fix on the braking system of 17,600 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan hybrids that should alleviate the feeling that the brakes are failing when applied by the driver.

Like the Toyota Prius, the Ford hybrids employ an innovative system known as regenerative braking, which converts braking energy into electrical energy, which is pumped back into the car's battery. But the hybrids also have a conventional hydraulic braking system, and when the vehicle's electronic controls switch from one system to the other as the driver is braking, it can momentarily feel as if the brakes are failing.

Ford believes the software fix will firm up the feeling of its hybrids' brakes by preventing the vehicle from unnecessarily switching between systems; it has already installed the fix in vehicles built after mid-October. The company said no injuries have been reported related to the glitch.

Toyota, on the other hand, has not decided what to do about similar consumer complaints in Prius brakes; it has denied daily reports predicting massive pending Prius recalls. On Friday, the Japanese media said nearly 300,000 Priuses could be recalled worldwide.

"We are aware of no decision on how best to handle" owner complaints about the Prius brakes, Toyota spokesman John Hanson said.

On Thursday, the U.S. government launched a formal probe into the brakes on the 2010 Prius. In January, the company recalled 2.1 million Toyotas for problems related to sticking gas pedals. This was in addition to 3.8 million vehicles recalled in September for what the company said was an unrelated problem with the floor mat and gas pedal.

Toyota Motor President Akio Toyoda, grandson of the company's founder, said he will personally head a new global quality task force to repair the company's image and fix quality problems.

"We express our heartfelt apology for causing trouble and concern to many of our customers," Toyoda said in Japanese during a news conference at Toyota headquarters in Nagoya, Japan. "We want to appeal to all our customers all over the world that we have their interests at heart."

A decision on the Prius braking issue will be reached as soon as possible, Toyoda said. The Prius was Japan's best-selling car last year.

Toyota acknowledged on Friday that the braking system in the 2010 Prius is similar to that in the Lexus HS 250h hybrid, also made by Toyota. Meanwhile, the South Korean media reported that country's government is weighing a recall of some of the fewer than 1,000 Priuses there.

As part of the new Toyota task force, the company said it will hire outside experts for the quality committee, executive vice president Shinichi Sasaki said at the news conference. The other elements of the six-point plan largely involve improving systems already in place -- key among them, collecting data from Toyota owners in a more timely fashion. In online forums, Toyota owners are now saying they have experienced sticking gas pedals on models dating back to 2003.

"As the head of a manufacturing company, I feel that to have given anxiety to our customers is very regrettable," Toyoda said. When a reporter asked Toyoda whether he would make any comments in English, he said, "Please believe me. We always put customers first."

Until his surprise evening news conference on Friday (7 a.m. in Washington), Toyoda, 53, had stayed mostly out of sight amid an avalanche of vehicle recalls, North American car plant closures and rising consumer alarm about the safety of Toyota vehicles.

The company has lost almost $34 billion in market value as the recall has grown to almost 8 million units worldwide.

Toyota said this week that recalls already underway for problematic gas pedals could cost $2 billion.

Meanwhile, nearly 200 complaints have been reported in the two countries over braking problems with the car.

"Rather than focus on the number of cars we sell, we will put our first priority on taking away our customers' anxiety and winning back trust," Toyoda said. "I believe that trust will come back to us as days pass."

Harden reported from Japan.

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