Toyota execs knew of SUV control defect for years: cops

Kyodo

A vice president and managing director at Toyota Motor Corp. both knew about a serious steering defect in the Hilux Surf sport utility vehicle in 1996, eight years before it was recalled due to an accident in Kumamoto Prefecture, police sources said Wednesday.

The two executives, who oversaw quality control at the time, did not recommend a recall, the sources said, without revealing the executives’ names.

Kumamoto Prefectural Police have decided not to send their case against them to prosecutors because, the sources said, it believes the quality control chief is mainly responsible for issuing recalls, they said.

Police Tuesday turned over to prosecutors their case against three men — the 55-year-old current quality control department chief, from Toyota, Aichi Prefecture, and two former heads of the department — charging they were professionally negligent for not recalling the model for the eight years until the accident injured five people. The two former department chiefs are a 62-year-old who is now an executive at an auto parts manufacturer and a 58-year-old who is in charge of Toyota’s recall audit office. Their names also were not released.

Toyota officials said they felt it was not necessary to recall the model in 1996 because the defect was not frequent enough. They also said Toyota saw no fault in the way the executives had dealt with the matter at the time.

The accident occurred on Aug. 12, 2004, when a driver in Kumamoto lost control of his Hilux Surf. The vehicle, built in November 1993, veered into oncoming traffic and collided head-on with another car, injuring five people. It was discovered that steering ability was lost when the tie rod broke.

Toyota discovered in around 1996 that the tie rod in the Hilux Surf remodeled in 1988 lacked adequate strength. The new model had a 95-kg increase in the load on the front wheels, but Toyota continued to use the same tie rod used in the lighter model.

Toyota made corrections on the assembly line, but did not recall vehicles already sold.

The vice president and managing director learned at company meetings in April and June 1996 that the tie rods put in its SUVs before the problem was caught were weak and prone to cracking, the sources said.

Toyota had received more than 20 complaints of cracked tie rods between 1992 and 1995 in Japan and from abroad, according to police.

The No. 1 Japanese carmaker allegedly recognized the problem as an A-rank defect according to Toyota quality standards, the worst ranking for a defect.

However, the firm did not recall the Hilux Surf because, according to police, no serious accident had occurred.

In October 2004, after the accident, Toyota recalled about 330,000 Hilux Surf vehicles, announcing that the tie rod was weak and could crack, leading to loss of steering.

The carmaker will continue to cooperate with the investigation, the officials said.

Kumamoto Prefectural Police set up a task force to probe the case last August.

Recalls filed by Japanese automakers have been rising in recent years since the massive coverups at Mitsubishi Motors Corp.

MMC admitted in 2000 that it had been systematically hiding auto defects from authorities for over two decades.

The automaker has announced a slew of recalls since then, only to disclose in 2004 that it failed to come clean in 2000 and concealed more defects than originally thought. Some of them were linked to fatal accidents. Toyota in June enhanced its quality checks because of a rise in the number of vehicles being returned under its recalls.

In 1996, it assigned an executive vice president to concentrate on quality and increased the number of the executive vice presidents in June from one to two.