Toyota says it is recalling about 437,000 Prius and other hybrid vehicles worldwide to fix brake problems — the latest in a string of embarrassing safety lapses at the world’s largest automaker.
“I don’t see Toyota as an infallible company that never makes mistakes,” President Akio Toyoda said at a press conference Tuesday in Tokyo. “We will face up to the facts and correct the problem, putting customers’ safety and convenience first.”
The recall is the latest blow to Toyota Motor Corp., which is in the midst of recalling more than 7 million vehicles worldwide because of problems with floor mats, which can trap gas pedals, and faulty gas pedals that are slow to return to the idle position. The 2010 Prius wasn’t part of those recalls.
There have been about 200 complaints in Japan and the U.S. about a delay when the brakes in the Prius were pressed in cold conditions and on some bumpy roads. The delay doesn’t indicate a brake failure. The company says the problem can be fixed in 40 minutes with new software that oversees the controls of the antilock brakes.
“Let me assure everyone that we will redouble our commitment to quality as the lifeline of our company,” Toyoda said.
Toyota officials went to Japan’s Transport Ministry earlier Tuesday to formally notify officials the company is recalling the 2010 Prius gas-electric hybrid — the world’s top-selling hybrid car. The automaker is also recalling two other hybrid models in Japan, the Lexus HS250h sedan, sold in the U.S. and Japan, and the Sai, which is sold only in Japan.
The 223,000 cars being recalled in Japan include nearly 200,000 Priuses sold from April last year through Monday, according to papers the automaker filed with the ministry. The Prius is Japan’s top-selling car.
Owners in Japan of the 2010 Prius can get their cars fixed starting Wednesday, said Ryusuke Itazaki, chief of the recall department at the Transport Ministry.
He said Toyota would suspend production of the Sai and Lexus HS250h in Japan as the company doesn’t have the updated software for those models yet.
If drivers experience any delayed reaction when depressing the brakes in any of these models, they should keep pressing, he said.
Itazaki said complaints about the brakes started coming in as the weather got colder, particularly from northern Japan.
He also said Toyota should have taken action sooner. “If the company had paid more attention to consumers’ viewpoint, it could have realized that there was a safety problem.”
He apologized at his first public press conference last Friday, but was criticized by the Japanese media for failing to outline concrete steps to tackle the safety crisis and reassure customers around the world.
In contrast to his halting English in response to questions from foreign reporters at last week’s news conference, Toyoda seemed much better prepared Tuesday, reading from an English statement after doing so in Japanese.
“We will do everything in our power to regain the confidence of our customers,” Toyoda said.
He said he planned to go to the U.S. soon to talk with American workers and dealers to bring the ranks together.
Analysts said fears of an even bigger consumer backlash prodded Toyota into recalling the Prius.
“If they hadn’t done the recalls, their image would have suffered even more,” said Ryoichi Saito, auto analyst at Mizuho Investors Securities in Tokyo.
U.S. safety officials have launched an investigation into problems with the brakes.
The problem is suspected in four crashes resulting in two minor injuries, according to data gathered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is investigating the matter. Toyota says it’s cooperating with NHTSA’s investigation.
Problems with hybrid braking systems haven’t been limited to Toyota.
Ford Motor Co. said last week it plans to fix 17,600 Mercury Milan and Ford Fusion gas-electric hybrids because of a software problem that can give drivers the impression that the brakes have failed. The automaker says the problem occurs in transition between two braking systems and at no time are drivers without brakes.
Toyota’s plug-in hybrid is also being recalled in Japan — a largely experimental model for rental and government use, with 159 sold.
The Prius holds a cherished spot in Toyota’s vehicle lineup and is symbolic of its leadership in the “green” car market.
The Toyota executive overseeing quality Shinichi Sasaki said the delay that Prius drivers can feel when braking lasts for a fraction of a second as the antilock brakes kick in.
The problem happens only on snowy or bumpy surfaces, and the complaints did not become more numerous until recently when the weather got colder, Sasaki said.
But Toyoda acknowledged the company could have done better in picking up on the complaints, managing the crisis and sending a message to car owners on a fix.
In the U.S., Toyota will add five more centers in addition to the current three that investigate customer complaints, Sasaki said.
“When compared to the size of Japan, America is so much bigger and so our network for gathering information was not enough,” he said.
Toyota was one of the first companies to mass-market a hybrid that combines an electric motor with a gas engine, introducing the Prius in Japan in 1997. Its high gas mileage made it popular among environmentally conscious drivers, especially when gas prices spiked two years ago.
But the complexity of the Prius, a highly computerized car, has led to problems in the past. In 2005, the company repaired 75,000 of them to fix software glitches that caused the engine to stall. It has also had trouble with headlights going out.
Shares in Toyota rose 2.9 percent Tuesday to 3,375 yen, but are still down about 20 percent since Jan. 21, when it announced the gas pedal recall.