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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Toyota wonders whether owners are misreading acceleration

Toyota's chief quality officer for North America thinks that some of the automaker's recall troubles come from doing a poor job of teaching customers about its cars at the dealership.

Steve St. Angelo -- tapped in March to head the task of repairing Toyota's image in the United States for quality -- thinks some Toyota owners may misunderstand their car's performance features.

“We're realizing that we haven't done a good job of educating our customers about our cars,” St. Angelo said in a phone conversation with Automotive News. “We must do a better job of educating them about the features, especially if they have anything to do with unintended acceleration.”

He said Toyota's radar cruise control system automatically slows down the vehicle if another car comes too close. But after the distance is clear, the car automatically returns to its previous speed -- a feature that could be confused with unintended acceleration, St. Angelo said.

Involve retailers

He said improving customer education will require the involvement of Toyota's U.S. retailers.

St. Angelo, also executive vice president of Toyota Motor Engineering & Manufacturing North America, has assigned 200 engineers to travel the United States responding to problems associated with the automaker's safety recalls over unintended acceleration. Those problems resulted in the global recall of 8.5 million vehicles and have damaged Toyota's brand reputation.

Company officials have apologized for the safety problems but originally resisted recalling the vehicles.

St. Angelo said the teams so far have inspected 500 Toyota vehicles in the field that are thought to have related problems. He did not reveal the specific results of the inspections.

He said the task force will continue after the recall problems are resolved.

‘Other issues'

“Once we stabilize these problems, the teams will begin looking at other issues out in the field,” St. Angelo said, without specifying what they would be.

He also said his task force has obtained 150 readout tools for Toyota's event data recorder -- the so-called black box -- for use around the United States and has given 10 to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Toyota was publicly chided late last year when it revealed that, while many of its vehicles are equipped with event data recorders that could shine light on why the vehicles might accelerate unintentionally, the company kept only one readout tool in the United States. Readout tools for other automakers' vehicles could not be used on Toyotas.

Critics pointed to the absence of the readout tools as evidence that Toyota's U.S. safety issues were managed in Japan, where managers were unresponsive to U.S. consumer concerns.

St. Angelo said its 150 U.S. readout tools are now more than adequate to analyze vehicle data locally.

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