U.S. government plans formal investigation into Toyota Corolla complaints

By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 18, 2010; A13

The U.S. government plans to launch a formal investigation on Thursday into driver complaints about steering problems with the 2009-10 Toyota Corolla, the latest in a series of seemingly unending blows to the struggling Japanese auto giant, once revered as the paragon of auto industry quality.

The probe will examine more than 150 complaints about the late-model Corollas submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an agency official said Wednesday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because Toyota had yet to be informed of the investigation, which will cover about 500,000 vehicles.

"When driving on the highway (60+ mph), the vehicle will all of a sudden start to wander back and forth in the lane, for a few hundred yards," reads a complaint about a 2010 Corolla received by NHTSA. "Then as quickly as it started, it stops. The wandering has almost created four collisions so far." Last week, NHTSA said it would begin an informal inquiry into the Corolla complaints.

News of the investigation came on the same day that Toyota surprised the auto industry by saying in Japan that it is considering a recall of the Corolla. The announcement marked a reversal of the company's tendency to avoid the mention of a recall until it is announced. Publicly contemplating the recall of the Corolla -- the fifth-best-selling vehicle in the United States in 2009 and the world's top-seller -- indicates a new transparency for the embattled automaker.

So far, Toyota has recalled 7.86 million vehicles worldwide since last fall, mostly in the United States. The recalls focus on unintended acceleration and braking complaints.

Also on Wednesday, Toyota President Akio Toyoda indicated that he would decline an invitation from a House panel to testify on Toyota's troubles, saying that Toyota North America President Yoshimi Inaba would be the better choice to answer lawmakers' questions. This comes only one day after Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), ranking minority member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, threatened to subpoena Toyoda, the grandson of the company's founder. The committee has scheduled a Feb. 24 hearing to address Toyota's problems, but Toyoda is not planning to travel to the United States until March, and then plans to only visit dealerships.

The Corolla steering complaints create a particularly troubling situation for Toyota. Thus far, the automaker's vehicles have had high-profile problems with acceleration, braking and now steering -- all three of a car's key control systems.

"Toyota has hit the trifecta, which makes this a very unhappy time for them," said David E. Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research. "Toyota is still trying to figure out what the real problems are." As a result, Cole said, Toyota has "no choice but to become increasingly transparent."

Toyoda said during a news conference that the company will add a brake-override system to all future vehicles that cuts engine power when the accelerator and brake pedals are depressed at the same time, which the company hopes will halt unintended acceleration.

Toyoda also worked to defuse increasing concern that the unintended acceleration is being caused by an electronic, not mechanical, problem.

"We have conducted rigorous testing under extremes of electromagnetic interference, vibration and other adverse conditions to conclusively verify that the system cannot accidentally induce acceleration," Toyoda said, adding that the company has hired an outside firm to verify test results.

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