DETROIT (Reuters) - A month into a safety crisis that has rocked its reputation and results, Toyota Motor Corp on Tuesday detailed new steps it would take to shore up quality standards that the automaker said had slipped during a period of fast growth.
Here’s a review of the steps that Toyota executives told congressional investigators the automaker was taking to overhaul its operations and to improve its safety record after a string of costly and embarrassing recalls:
Toyota says a new safety review board will be set up by the end of March. Until now, decisions on whether to launch a recall have been made by Toyota’s Japan-based Customer Quality Engineering team.
But that structure of centralized decision making in Japan made it harder for safety complaints from U.S. consumers to be a part of recall deliberations, Toyota’s U.S. sales chief, Jim Lentz, said. “We did not do a good job of sharing information around the globe,” he said. “Most of the flow was one way.”
A representative of Toyota’s U.S. operations will now sit on the global board, Lentz said. If the U.S. team disagrees with a position taken by the company, the new structure will allow that decision to be appealed, Lentz said.
In addition, Toyota is creating a new position of “product safety executive” for the United States, Lentz said.
Transport Secretary Ray LaHood said on Tuesday that Toyota’s prior model needed to be changed. He said it had taken an extraordinary trip to Japan by U.S. regulators to change the company’s approach, he said.
Toyota said it is hiring an outside advisory group of experts from North America and around the world to review its safety actions.
One of the key early missions for that group, Lentz said, would be to commission a new outside review of electronic controls on Toyota vehicles and an inquiry into whether they could be subject to dangerous faults.
Toyota has hired Exponent, a California-based engineering consulting firm, to conduct an analysis of its electronic controls. Lentz said the firm had not found any flaws in Toyota’s control systems but promised that a full report by the company would be made public.
Lentz told lawmakers that Toyota was open to more scrutiny from outside experts such as David Gilbert, an auto engineering expert who claims to have discovered a potential flaw in the way Toyota’s throttle control monitors operate.
Lentz said Toyota was hiring more engineers and planned to have accident “SWAT teams” that would be on site within 24 hours of a reported unintended acceleration incident. He said he had mandated that he would be personally informed of reports on unintended acceleration made to Toyota and how those are resolved.
In one of the most charged moments of over seven hours of hearings, Rhonda Smith, a retired social worker in Tennessee, told the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee that her Lexus had accelerated out of control to 100 miles per hour despite engaging the brakes and the emergency brake.
Toyota representatives, she said, had told her that she was at fault and that the brakes would always stop the car. “We were insulted and furious at being called liars,” she said.
Lentz said he was “embarrassed” to hear how the Smiths had been treated by Lexus.
He said Toyota had “lost sight of the customer” and failed to appreciate small but important points like how real-world drivers were using floormats.
Automakers are required to equip vehicles sold in the United States with “black box” recorders similar to those used in commercial aircraft from 2012. Some Toyota vehicles already have the devices, Lentz said.
Plaintiffs lawyers have sought data from Toyota “black box” recorders as evidence in some pending lawsuits related to crashes in the automaker’s vehicles.
But Toyota and U.S. officials say one problem has been that until now, there has only been one device in the United States capable of reading data from the boxes. Lentz said that device was a prototype.
He pledged that the company would have 100 such readers available in the United States by April.
Toyota’s black boxes are designed to record data from five seconds before a crash and one second after, Lentz said.
Toyota, Lentz said, was committed to being far more transparent. He suggested that could mean job changes or dismissals for a company legendary for cultivating and keeping workers for the duration of their careers.
“If somebody in the company doesn’t want to be transparent or if somebody in the past has concealed things, then ... maybe they have to go,” Lentz said.
Reporting by Soyoung Kim; Editing by Richard Chang