Dealers get down to work on software

by Hiroko Nakata and Takahiro Fukada

Toyota dealers across the nation Wednesday started fixing the software of the newest Prius and three other hybrid models and scrambled to contact customers to notify them of the recall in hopes of preserving their brand loyalty.

“We started to call our 50 customers at around 2 p.m. (Tuesday) when the headquarters called us,” the owner of a Toyota dealership in central Tokyo said. “We’ve finished contacting two-thirds of them. We’ll repair several units a day from this point forward.”

The recall of 223,068 vehicles in Japan was announced Tuesday.

The dealers are upgrading the software for the new hybrid’s antilock brake system to fix a glitch that causes temporary malfunctions on icy or bumpy roads.

The job takes about 40 minutes, according to Toyota.

However, Toyota halted sales of the Lexus HS250h, the Sai sedan and the plug-in Prius because the software patch for those vehicles is not yet available. Sales are expected to resume late this month or in early March, according to a transport ministry official.

In Yokohama, which has actively promoted its environmentally friendly policies, one of two ward offices that are leasing a plug-in Prius is temporarily keeping it parked.

“We’ll stop driving the Prius until the software is fixed,” said Hiroshi Kawagoe, head of the general affairs division at Kohoku Ward.

“Right now, we are waiting for contact from our dealer,” he continued. “It is regrettable, but we are suspending use so there won’t be any accidents when ward officials drive the car.”

The plug-in hybrid is one of two Yokohama introduced last month as part of its “green car” fleet that includes electric vehicles, hybrid buses and hybrid garbage trucks.

Narityo Taxi Co. in Aomori Prefecture, a region known for heavy snow, had temporarily taken its two new Prius hybrids out of service.

“We spoke with our drivers. They had a kind of a slippery feeling when they drove the Prius and stepped on the brake, but they were not sure if it was because of the icy roads or the snow, or because of the software glitch,” said Masahito Ishikake, an executive of the company.

Narityo Taxi has already had the software fixed and has put the cars back out on the road, he said.

Some Toyota owners were insulted by an executive’s comments last week that the Prius braking problem stemmed not from a defect but was due to drivers’ unfamiliarity with the car.

“The comment sounded arrogant. It was the logic of a big company,” said Hayato Atarashi, 33, a Toyota owner in Osaka.

But he said Toyota dealers have taken good care of their customers.

“I don’t think this problem is fatal to the company. The brand is still the symbol of safety and the dealers provide enough followup services,” he said.