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After Toyota hearings, harder laws vowed for autos, recalls

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After Toyota hearings, harder laws vowed for autos, recalls



WASHINGTON -- After another round of unanswered questions by top Toyota executives Tuesday, a key U.S. senator vowed tougher laws governing automakers and recalls, along with a possible mandate of brake-override systems in all vehicles.

A parade of senators criticized the Japanese automaker and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for downplaying thousands of sudden acceleration complaints in Toyota and Lexus vehicles. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said lawmakers had been frustrated in attempts to find out who was responsible at Toyota.

"Safety took a second seat to profits," Rockefeller said. "In Japanese culture and Japanese corporations, things do not happen by chance, they happen by decision."

Rockefeller also said Toyota should strongly consider offering brake override on all its older models, regardless of cost, as part of two recalls covering 5.6 million vehicles.

Three top Toyota executives, including its top quality and engineering officials, again apologized for the company, but defended its electronic systems, saying there was no sign ever of a fault causing sudden acceleration.

"We understand fully there is big room for improvement in the way in which we have dealt in the past," said Shinichi Sasaki, Toyota's executive vice president.

The committee revealed new documents showing top Toyota executives in the U.S. warning Japanese supervisors in late 2006 and early 2008 that the company's quality problems were leading to potential recalls, and that U.S. executives needed more power to deal with U.S. regulators.

In a presentation by Toyota's former U.S. chief Jim Press dated Sept. 20, 2006, the slides note an uptick in Toyota's recalls, and the notes to the presentation say Toyota had seen its relationship with the NHTSA "slip slightly."

"There is a new dynamic in the U.S.," the presentation says. "As your face to NHTSA, we ask TMC (Toyota Motor Co.) to trust our judgment when we need your urgent help in getting issues resolved. We need faster information flow and more technical support when hot issues arise."

Yet in January 2008, another presentation by Chris Tinto, vice president for regulatory affairs at Toyota's U.S. arm, uses the exact same language as Press' remarks and asks again for more authority.

"Although we rigorously defend our products through good negotiation and analysis, we have a less defensible product," Tinto states. The U.S. arm "has been quite successful in mediating difficult issues," noting the limited 2007 recall of floor mats, "but it is becoming increasingly challenging."



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