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Toyota promises quicker response on quality issues

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[March 30, 2010]  TOYOTA, Japan (AP) -- Toyota promised Tuesday to respond faster to customer complaints as it held its first meeting of a committee of quality experts set up to help salvage a reputation battered by massive recalls and reports of runaway vehicles.

Toyota Motor Corp. appointed chief quality officers in key regions -- including North America -- where the biggest problems have surfaced to convey customer complaints quickly to its headquarters. It promised to include outside experts in evaluating quality measures.

"Listening to consumer voices is most important in regaining credibility from our customers," said Toyota President Akio Toyoda at a news conference after the quality committee met. "We are setting up a system to respond more quickly to complaints."

The quality committee meeting brought together 70 executives and autoworkers from Toyota's global operations at the automaker's headquarters in central Japan.

At the news conference, Toyoda said the company needs to listen more carefully to proposals for better quality, including what drivers are saying.

The company said the quality committee will issue its first report in June and will meet regularly to exchange insight and tackle safety issues.

Also Tuesday, Toyota said it will add a brake override -- a system that allows the brakes to work if they are pressed together with the accelerator -- to new models starting this year. That follows reports in the United States of vehicles speeding up on their own.

Under an effort to beef up quality checks, Toyota said it will set up four additional facilities to train employees in quality controls -- in North America, China, Europe and Southeast Asia -- modeled after the training center it already has in Japan.

The company said it will expand the use of "black box" data recorders that can help analyze the causes of accidents and speed up communication among quality control teams to make faster decisions on recalls.

Toyota has recalled more than 8 million vehicles around the world since October for defective gas pedals, faulty floor mats and braking software glitches. Most of them have been in the U.S., where Toyota sales fell 9 percent in February, according to Autodata Corp.

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Toyota showed reporters its facilities at headquarters, which are designed to check on possible defects in vehicles and parts targeted in consumer complaints.

Among the tests were an X-ray machine that presented three-dimensional computer imagery, an area that simulated heavy rains with water squirting from 400 nozzles, and a room that got both freezing cold and steaming hot to check how vehicles react under extreme weather conditions.

The media tour was intended to illustrate the hard work at the automaker to ensure quality control and respond to driver complaints. Toyoda has acknowledged that the company may have failed to be as quick or responsive as consumers would have liked about defects, especially overseas.

Toyota's North American sales appear to be recovering this month. Toyota, which generally does not offer big incentives, has begun offering zero-percent financing deals on some models in the U.S. to bring customers back into showrooms.

Toyota's bottom line is expected to suffer, perhaps by billions of dollars, from a spate of lawsuits being filed by consumers, including some who say they suffered damages from defective Toyota vehicles.

Toyota's reputation has suffered from reports in the U.S. of vehicles speeding up on their own.

After the crash of a Prius hybrid in New York this month, police said the driver, not the car, was to blame. Officials are investigating another Prius that reportedly accelerated on its own in California.

[Associated Press; By YURI KAGEYAMA]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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