Days before a massive recall that impacted millions of consumers in the U.S., Toyota officials argued whether or not to disclose information related to problems with company's accelerator pedals.
"We should not mention about mechanical failures of pedal because we have not clarified the real cause of the sticking pedal formally and the remedy for the matter has not been confirmed," said Toyota's Katsuhiko "Kogi" Koganei in an email sent to executives on January 16, 2010. Koganei was operating out of Toyota's US headquarters in California as an executive coordinator for communications. "[We] are concerned about the comment with mechanical failures might raise another uneasiness of customers."
At the time, Toyota was maintaining publicly that issues related to unintended acceleration were limited to problems with floor mats.
Another executive responded in disagreement: "Kogi, I hate to break this to you but WE HAVE A tendency for MECHANICAL failure in accelerator pedals of a certain manufacturer on certain models," Irv Miller, Group Vice President, Environmental and Public Affairs, wrote later that afternoon. "The time to hide on this one is over. We need to come clean."
Five days after this email exchange, Toyota changed its story and a new recall notice went out. To date, the company has indicated that unintended acceleration incidents are related to either floor mat problems, sticky pedal problems or the combination of the two. A separate recall of the 2010 Toyota Prius involves braking problems.
The emails surfaced recently when the Associated Press found them among the 70,000 pages of information Toyota handed over to the Department of Transportation. Days ago, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood said Toyota acted illegally when it delayed telling government officials and the public about problems with its vehicles. NHTSA is seeking more than $16 million in fines as a result.
Toyota said it will not comment on the email thread, but that it did a poor job of communicating with customers.
"The company did a poor job of communicating during the period preceding our recent recalls," said a statement posted on the company's media website this week. "We have subsequently taken a number of important steps to improve our communications with regulators and customers on safety-related matters to ensure that this does not happen again. These include the appointment of a new Chief Quality Officer for North America and a greater role for the region in making safety-related decisions. "
Miller Retires After Exchange
Two weeks after the January 16 email exchange, Miller retired from Toyota. The company said his retirement was well before the incident.
Miller was known within the company as a straight shooter. On the issue of unintended acceleration, Miller remained steadfast that the company should and would do the right thing.
"Toyota has a well-earned reputation for integrity and we will vigorously defend it," Miller said in a statement on December 23, 2009.
Miller's emails and those from company executives reveal the predicament automakers face when investigating problems with their products.
Some reported problems are real and warrant disclosure to the public, while other aren't problems at all. NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigations receives hundreds of thousands of complaints each year and some are attributed to user error, not vehicle defects.
Over the last 3 years, NHTSA investigations resulted in 524 recalls, a sum total of more than 23 million vehicles.