Five days before Toyota recalled more than 2 million vehicles to fix "sticky" gas pedals, one of the automaker's top U.S. executives sent an e-mail to another Toyota official saying the company should "come clean" about problems with its gas pedals.
The Jan. 16 e-mail from VP Irv Miller was a response to an e-mail from another exec, Katsuhiko Koganei, in which Koganei urged a third Toyota official, public relations VP Mike Michels, not to "mention . . . mechanical failures of acc[elerator] pedals." The e-mails, which were among 70,000 company documents that the federal government requested from Toyota, both appear to have been part of a longer exchange between a group of executives about how to respond to an upcoming ABC News report on a sudden acceleration incident involving a Toyota.
At the time, ABC News was preparing a story about driver Kevin Haggerty, who said his Avalon had suddenly accelerated on a New Jersey highway. ABC News aired its report on Haggerty on Jan. 21 – the same day ABC announced its recall of 2.3 million cars to fix sticky gas pedals.
The subject line on Koganei's Jan. 16 e-mail to Michels says, "Re: Draft statement to respond to ABC News story."
"Dear Mike-san," wrote Koganei, "Thank you for your hard work while under this sunny weather . . .
"Now I talked with you on the phone, we should not mention about the mechanical failures of acc. pedal, because we have not clarified the real cause of the sticking acc pedal formally, and the remedy for the matter has not been confirmed. I talked over this matter with Ryo-san, KC Kirimoto-san, and Doi-san, and all of them are concerned about the comment with mechanical failures might raise another uneasiness of customers. (See the attached file. Red highlighted parts should be removed, I think.)"
ABC News did not obtain a copy of the "attached file" referred to in the e-mail thread, but it seems to have been sent by Michels to Koganei and other executives and titled "Post ABC release 1-15 6pm.doc."
Irv Miller's response to Koganei's e-mail is timestamped 7:05 p.m., Jan. 16.
"Kogi," wrote Miller, "I hate to break it to you but WE HAVE A tendency for MECHANICAL failure in accelerator pedals of a certain manufacturer on certain models. We are not protecting our customers by keeping this quiet. The time to hide on this one is over. We need to come clean and I believe that Jim Lentz [head of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A.] and Yoshi [Yoshimi Inaba, head of Toyota Motor North America] are on the way to DC for meetings with NHTSA to discuss options."
"We better just hope that they can get NHTSA to work with us in coming [sic] with a workable solution that does not put us out of business."
Miller, group vice president for environment and public affairs, retired two weeks after sending the e-mail. He had announced his impending retirement in December. He did not respond to a request for comment from ABC News. Mike Michels, Toyota's U.S. VP for external communications, also did not respond to a request for comment.
The ABC News report on Kevin Haggerty's 2007 Avalon appeared on World News and Nightline and on the Blotter on Jan. 21. That same day, Toyota announced its gas pedal recall, its second major recall of U.S. vehicles in the space of four months. In September, it had recalled 3.8 million cars to fix floor mats.
Haggerty told ABC News he started having trouble with occasional episodes of random acceleration in his car in mid-2009.
Haggerty took the car to his Toyota dealership in November. The mechanics there "went through the car thoroughly and did all the diagnostic tests," said Haggerty, "and they couldn't determine why it was happening." On Monday morning, December 28, Haggerty was traveling east on Interstate 78 when he says the car started accelerating again. Soon the car had revved up to 65 miles per hour.
"I had my foot on the brake," recalled Haggerty. "It seemed like the accelerator was overpowering the brake." Haggerty says he got the car under control by using the brake and putting the car into neutral. Realizing he was close to the exit that would take him to his Toyota dealership, Haggerty called the dealership on his cellphone. The service manager told him to bring the car in.
When he reached the dealership, the brakes and the tires were smoking. Haggerty put the car in neutral. The engine was still revving.
The first thing the service manager did, said Haggerty, was check the floor mat. The mat was still in place, attached to the floor with factory-installed brackets. "He even confirmed to me," said Haggerty, "that it's not the floor mat that's the problem. It was accelerating and he witnessed it. He sat in the seat and he witnessed it accelerate."
The service manager called a Toyota representative. According to Haggerty, the Toyota representative told the service manager to replace the gas pedal and the throttle and their sensors.
Toyota determined that it believed the cause of acceleration in Haggerty's vehicle was a sticky gas pedal, and that it would be covered by the Jan. 21 recall. Haggerty told ABC News, however, that he does not believe the cause of sudden acceleration was a sticky gas pedal.