LOS ANGELES, TOYOTA CITY, JAPAN, AND SEOUL — Federal regulators launched another safety investigation into Toyota Motor Corp. on Monday, examining whether the automaker delayed disclosing a serious defect in the steering system in 4Runner SUVs and T100 trucks.
Toyota is now under at least eight federal safety investigations and reviews. A ninth investigation was closed last month, when Toyota agreed to pay a record $16.4-million fine for failing to promptly recall models that had a sticky gas pedal.
The latest probe was launched while Toyota President Akio Toyoda held a long-planned meeting with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in Japan, vowing to improve communications.
At a wide-ranging news conference held at Toyota headquarters in Toyota City on Monday, Toyoda said the Japanese carmaker was "sharing information across regions on a more timely basis," adding, "This is contributing to quick action."
He also promised to improve quality assurance in all Toyota vehicles. "I have devoted myself to advancing this effort by leading a new Special Committee for Global Quality," he said. "It is my top priority."
Toyoda said his company had established a North America Quality Advisory Panel chaired by former U.S. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, and had also appointed a chief quality officer for North America.
LaHood's visit came ahead of Tuesday's quarterly earnings release, in which the automaker is expected to post a profit after a loss a year earlier, driven in part by unprecedented sales incentives it offered in the U.S. to help buttress the potential fallout from its recalls.
LaHood had arrived in Japan promising to deliver the world's leading automaker a stern message that U.S. regulators would not tolerate safety violations that endanger the public.
The announcement of the investigation was coincidental with LaHood's visit, U.S. officials said. The probe was launched when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received documents Friday indicating that Toyota had potentially misled the government in 2005 over problems with steering linkages in its vehicles.
In a letter to Toyota on Monday, NHTSA officials said the investigation included the 1989-95 4Runner and the 1993-98 T100.
The Times reported in December that Toyota had recalled 330,000 of its HiLux trucks, sold in Japan but not the U.S., in 2003. The company told U.S. regulators at the time that no recall was necessary in the U.S. because it had not received any complaints.
But allegations in four lawsuits filed in 2009 in Los Angeles showed that the company had received numerous consumer complaints dating from 2000 on two models that used the same linkage, the 4Runner SUV and the T100 pickup, The Times reported. Toyota's 4x4 pickup was also included in the complaints but was not specifically mentioned in the probe announced Monday.
In September 2005, Toyota recalled 1 million of the U.S. vehicles to replace the steering relay rods. Under federal law, an automaker has only five days to notify NHTSA and conduct a recall to fix the defect once it learns about a problem.
The steering rod investigation was requested by attorney John Kristensen, who is representing four families suing Toyota. He said Toyota had received 44 complaints when it told NHTSA that it had no knowledge of any complaints.
"Toyota's delay is unacceptable," Kristensen said.
In addition to the new investigation, NHTSA is examining whether the company's recalls for floor mats and sticky pedals that could cause sudden acceleration were timely. It is also investigating sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles, the stability control system in the Sequoia SUV, stalling problems in the Corolla and Matrix, steering wander in the Corolla and Matrix and braking performance in the Prius.
"The latest investigation shows that NHTSA doubts any submission or recall by Toyota," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "The presumption in the past was that the company got things right. Now, the presumption is they get things wrong."
Toyota executives did not return calls asking for comment.
In the 25-minute session with reporters in Toyota City, LaHood said his delegation of U.S. Transportation officials had met with Toyota executives for what he described as a frank dialogue. He applauded Toyoda for the various appointments and new structures within the company to further product safety.
"I told Mr. Toyoda today, these are very encouraging steps, but we will watch very carefully for improvements in safety and results in safety," LaHood said.
LaHood's trip, a rare high-level meeting between a U.S. Cabinet secretary and a Japanese manufacturer over safety concerns, comes as both sides continue to feel the glare of public scrutiny. Since last fall, Toyota has issued nearly 11 million recall notices for its vehicles worldwide and faces a host of political, legal and regulatory probes.
But NHTSA has also come under fire for its handling of the Toyota defect scandal. In the last eight years, the agency closed multiple investigations involving Toyota despite thousands of complaints and allegations of several dozen deaths caused by sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles.
When asked at the news conference whether Toyota had purposely withheld information from NHTSA related to the 2004 steering rod relay recall, Toyoda said: "We do tend to take time getting down to the cause of problems, but we have never hidden information or attempted to conceal anything since our company started."