WASHINGTON – In public, Toyota is running apologetic TV ads and vowing to win back customers’ trust. Behind the scenes, the besieged carmaker is trying to learn all it can about congressional investigations, maybe even steer them if it can.
It’s part of an all-out drive by the world’s biggest auto manufacturer to redeem its once unassailable brand. Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles worldwide in recent months after reports of unintended acceleration, which the automaker has blamed on gas pedals that stick and on floor mats that can entrap the gas pedal. Some safety experts believe the issue could be with the electronic throttle control system in the vehicles, a claim that Toyota has rebuted.
Late Monday, Toyota said it was recalling an additional 437,000 vehicles, including 133,000 Prius and 14,500 Lexus models in the United States, because of a braking problem. Owners will receive letters starting next week instructing them to bring the vehicles to a dealership to update software in the anti-lock brake system.
In Washington, facing congressional inquiries and government investigations, Toyota through its lawyers and lobbyists is working full-speed to salvage its reputation. The confidential strategy – Toyota will say little publicly about its efforts – includes efforts to sway upcoming hearings on Capitol Hill and is based on experiences by companies that have survived similar consumer and political crises – and those that haven’t.
Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich, said Toyota representatives visited his offices seeking to learn all they could.
“They’re probing us. ‘What are you going to ask us, where are you going with this whole thing?’ ” said Stupak, who is chairman of a House subcommittee looking into Toyota’s problems.
Toyota, which reported spending more than $4 million on lobbying last year, declined to discuss details of its plans. The company has “beefed up our team” by hiring additional lobbyists, lawyers and public relations experts to “work with regulators and lawmakers collaboratively towards a successful recall effort, ensuring proper, diligent compliance,” spokeswoman Cindy Knight said in an e-mail to the Associated Press.
Rough headlines for Toyota continued Tuesday. In other developments:
•State Farm, the largest U.S. auto insurer, said it had informed federal regulators late in 2007 about growing reports of unexpected acceleration in Toyotas. That disclosure raised new questions about whether the government missed clues about problems. Reps. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and Stupak wrote insurance executives on Tuesday seeking information on any warnings they may have provided the government about unintended acceleration in Toyotas.
•Congressional investigators cited growing evidence that not all the causes of Toyota’s acceleration problems have been identified. A staff memo from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which had planned an oversight hearing for today, said there was substantial evidence that remedies such as redesigned floor mats have failed to solve problems. The hearing was postponed until Feb. 24 due to snow in Washington.
•Federal safety officials said they were examining complaints from Toyota Corolla owners about steering problems.
Toyota faces at least two congressional hearings besides Stupak’s, including the one delayed by snow. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said his panel will hold a hearing on March 2 after the two by the House.