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Mitsubishi Fuso Truck and Bus Corp. acknowledged Thursday that some of its large vehicles have design flaws that could cause the wheels to come off, as in an accident that killed a woman in 2002.

The automaker, which had previously argued that wheels were coming off due to faulty maintenance instead of any problem on its part, said it will recall all large vehicles manufactured during and prior to 1996 and replace the hubs, which keep the wheel on the axle, to prevent further detachments.

Large vehicles, including trucks made by Mitsubishi Motors Corp., have been involved in a series of wheel-detachment incidents.

In one such accident, in Yokohama in January 2002, a 29-year-old woman was killed and her two sons were injured when the wheel of a passing truck came off and struck them down.

Mitsubishi Motors split off its truck and bus division to set up Mitsubishi Fuso in January 2003. MMC has a 42 percent stake in the firm, while DaimlerChrysler AG holds 43 percent.

“What we say today is that design (of the hub) can be a reason for it,” Mitsubishi Fuso President Wilfried Porth told a news conference at the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry, referring to the accident.

“Maintenance only is not the correct root cause,” Porth said, adding that the company came to this conclusion over the weekend and notified the ministry Wednesday.

Porth bowed deeply along with other senior Mitsubishi Fuso executives, saying, “We want to express our sincere condolences to the family of the victim.”

Mitsubishi Fuso said in-house investigations showed that hubs could crack and break during turns if a vehicle was carrying an an excessive load. This could then cause the tires to come off.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda criticized the company during a regular news conference later in the day, saying, “It’s bad (for the company) to have taken such a long time before making a judgment.”

Mitsubishi Fuso said it has been voluntarily changing the front hubs of select large vehicle models since January 2002, and that about 75,000 vehicles have already been repaired. However, this step has not been taken overseas, and there are about 1,300 vehicles it has not yet tracked down, company officials said.

Thursday’s recall is expected to affect an additional 45,000 units or so.

Porth said that the voluntary repair work and recall will probably cost the company about 3 billion yen.

According to sources close to the firm, there were 33 incidents involving wheel detachments from Mitsubishi Fuso vehicles between 1992 and the Yokohama accident.

Similar accidents continued even after the Yokohama accident, bringing the total to roughly 50 accidents by May 2003, the sources said.

Kanagawa Prefectural Police are investigating the Yokohama accident as possible professional negligence resulting in death and injury. They searched the head offices of both Mitsubishi Fuso and Mitsubishi Motors last October and January. The woman’s family has also filed a damages suit.

“I think we should work together with police and prosecutors to come up with the right decision,” Porth said.

By the end of the month, Mitsubishi Motors will reduce its stake in Mitsubishi Fuso to 20 percent by selling it to DaimlerChrysler, which will then have a 65 percent stake.

Information from wire services added

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