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California and the West

State Tells Toyota to Fix Cars or Face Big Recall

Environment: Air quality board says emission diagnostic tools are faulty in '96-'98 vehicles. Auto maker disagrees and says it has challenged the order in court.

September 03, 1998|JOHN O'DELL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Blasting the Asian car maker for intransigence, the powerful California Air Resources Board told Toyota on Wednesday to come up with a plan to fix faulty diagnostic computers on 330,000 cars or face a massive state-mandated recall early next year.

But Torrance-based Toyota Motor Sales of America said late Wednesday that it already has challenged the order in court and believes that its diagnostic computers meet every standard set by the pollution control agency.

Toyota's suit was filed in Superior Court in Sacramento last Friday, said company spokesman Jeremy Barnes.

The repairs demanded by the Air Resources Board would cost the company almost $83 million if it had to replace each of the $250 computers.

The order stops short of forcing Toyota to recall the cars now and gives it until Jan. 1 to come up with a repair plan.

"At that point, depending on what Toyota does, there could be a recall," said board spokesman Rich Varenchik. It would be the largest ever ordered by the board, which sets the state's emission standards, the strictest in the nation.

Toyota could, however, develop a plan that would avoid a recall and enable it to repair the computers as car owners bring vehicles in for regular maintenance.

State law requires car makers to equip vehicles with an on-board diagnostic system, called OBD II, that alerts a driver of engine and emission-control system malfunctions, usually via a dashboard warning light.

Air resources officials say recent tests show that Toyota's OBD II system works in the laboratory but fails to meet state standards in real-world operating conditions.

The computers, installed on all 1996-1998 Toyota and Lexus models sold in California, have failed to detect gasoline vapor leaks that could add to air pollution in the state, the resources board says. Gas vapors are a major ingredient in smog and a known cancer-causing agent.

But the agency doesn't believe that the situation presents a safety hazard, said agency spokesman Jerry Martin.

Toyota agrees with the state on that issue. "We are talking about minuscule amounts of hydrocarbons," Barnes said.

Toyota is the world's third-largest car maker and the fourth-largest car seller in the United States.

The company last month declined a request by the state board to institute a voluntary recall and repair or replace the computers. "Basically, they have drawn a line in the sand," Barnes said Wednesday of the board's order. "We have our own test data that contradicts their findings," he said.

"It is unfortunate that Toyota, which positions itself as an environmentally sensitive company, would resist recalling these vehicles and correcting this problem," said Tom Cackette, chief deputy executive officer of the board.

If Toyota's challenge fails, owners of cars affected by the repair order would be contacted by the car maker once a state-approved recall or repair plan is finalized.

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