US chides Toyota over massive recall

WASHINGTON: Toyota has come under fire from a top US official for its handling of a massive recall as the giant Japanese carmaker scrambled to reassure customers on safety.

US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said on Tuesday that Toyota's recall of millions of vehicles with defective pedals that can get stuck and cause unwanted acceleration came only after pressure from the US government.

"Since questions were first raised about possible safety defects, we have been pushing Toyota to take measures to protect consumers," LaHood said in a statement.

"While Toyota is taking responsible action now, it unfortunately took an enormous effort to get to this point."

Safety regulators are "considering a civil penalty against Toyota," an official told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Toyota said Monday it had not been forced into the voluntary mass recalls, insisting the decision to stop US sales and production of eight affected models was "entirely ours."

A spokesman for Toyota's US operations acknowledged Tuesday that it had discussed the matter with LaHood and was "grateful for his advice."

"Secretary LaHood said to us that the soonest possible action would be in the interest of our customers," said Mike Michaels, Toyota Motor Sales USA's vice president in charge of communication.

"We took his advice very seriously and instituted a recall," Michaels said in a conference call discussing the automaker's US sales, which were down 8.7 percent in January.

"We're grateful for his advice and we feel we've been given a chance to regain our customers trust."

Meanwhile, the recall spread to about 180,000 vehicles in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America Tuesday that were imported from the United States with sticking accelerator pedals.

Recall forces US supplier into defense That follows the recall of 1.8 million vehicles in Europe on Friday and brings the number of vehicles affected to almost eight million worldwide -- roughly equivalent to Toyota entire 2009 global sales.

Toyota's US unit says the Japanese company had "developed and rigorously tested" a fix for accelerator pedals in faulty models and had also come up with "an effective solution" for vehicles currently in production.

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak suggested Tuesday in media interviews that Toyota's troubles may have to do with software, after his Prius sped up while in cruise-control.

"Since my foot never touches the pedal," Wozniak told ABC News, the problem "cannot be a sticky accelerator pedal.... There might be some bad software in there."

Wozniak said he tried unsuccessfully to get Toyota's and US authorities' attention after his 2010 Prius acceleration problems cropped up while he was in cruise control months ago.

Thanks to the media attention this week, however, Toyota has responded by offering to borrow Wozniak's car for a week to diagnose the problem, The Los Angeles Times reported on its website.

The Prius, a best-selling hybrid, is not one of the vehicles under recall.

Toyota has actively expanded overseas in the past decade to meet brisk demand for its cars, prompting critics to question whether its renowned quality control has weakened in the process -- a suggestion the group denies. Related article: Hyundai sales soar in US amid Toyota recall

"I do not think that the expansion of the production overseas has affected the quality," Toyota vice president Shinichi Sasaki told a news conference Tuesday, at which he issued a fresh apology for the company over the massive recall.

"We have full trust in engineering and quality," added Sasaki, the first Toyota executive to talk publicly in Japan about the recalls since they spread around the world last week.Related article: Apple co-founder says Toyota may have software trouble

The company is still unsure what the financial impact of the recalls will be for the automaker, Sasaki said.

"The cost is going to be high but we needed to do this," he said. "Before we worry about the impact, we should worry about the customers and the dealers."

Toyota president Akio Toyoda, the grandson of the company's founder, has kept a low profile since the recall went global last week, and he did not appear at Tuesday's news conference. Related article: Toyota draws flak over recall PR strategy

When he was eventually tracked down by a Japanese television crew at the Davos economic forum over the weekend, he briefly apologized, saying the group was "extremely sorry to have made customers feel uneasy."

The Japanese giant is facing criticism that it failed to communicate adequately with customers. It took more than a week for the company to outline a repair program after the recall was first announced.

"We gave priority to properly issuing a warning, even at risk of causing confusion," said Sasaki. "I apologize from the management for the delay and I hope you understand the situation."

The company said that in rare cases, the accelerator pedal mechanism could become worn and harder to depress, or get stuck in a partially depressed position.