Toyota Motor Corp <7203.T> came under new scrutiny on Monday over its recall practices just after the Obama administration said the company was paying closer attention to safety matters.
The development concerning Hilux pickups several years ago raised new questions about timely disclosure and a possible fine if Toyota delayed action to address complaints that certain steering system parts could wear out, crack or even break.
News of the investigation came hours after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood came away from a meeting with Toyota chief executive Akio Toyoda reassured the company was listening better and taking action to address safety shortcomings.
But LaHood said Toyota had to fully demonstrate it had permanently removed the safety deaf label he publicly tattooed on the company this year, escalating an already damaging safety crisis over unintended acceleration.
We're going to continue to pay very close attention to our safety responsibility and pay close attention to make sure that Toyota is holding up its safety criteria and making sure that their cars are safe, LaHood said.
The automaker recalled more than 6.5 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles in the United States -- 8 million worldwide -- in 2009 and this year, mainly for acceleration complaints.
U.S. regulators are investigating allegations the problems are associated with up to three dozen U.S. crash deaths over the past decade.
Appearing with LaHood after their meeting in Toyota City, Toyoda told reporters he believes the company is making strong progress delivering on its safety promises.
Heavy scrutiny by U.S. regulators and lawmakers prompted Toyota to establish a quality control panel in North America to boost customer satisfaction, streamline the flow of information to and from headquarters and expedite recall decisions.
Our entire company has mobilized to ensure that Toyota vehicles remain safe and reliable for our customers, Toyoda said.
LaHood also said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) continues to investigate whether Toyota violated U.S. law by delaying a 2009 recall of all-weather floor mats that could jam the gas pedal and cause unintended acceleration.
LaHood said regulators were poring over 500,000 pages of documents and would not know what, if any, action may be needed for a couple of months.
He did not rule out a fine, which would be the second against Toyota.
Toyota agreed to pay a record $16.4 million U.S. fine last month for delaying a January recall over defective accelerator pedals that would not spring back as designed.
Toyota denied violating regulations in the sticky pedal recall and said it was paying the penalty to avoid a protracted and expensive dispute with U.S. officials.
LaHood did not address the Hilux matter, which was disclosed hours after his news conference in Japan and a separate teleconference with U.S. reporters.
In a statement late on Monday, NHTSA said Toyota conducted a recall in Japan in 2004 of 1988-96 Hilux pickups that were similar to 4Runner and Truck vehicles sold in the United States for steering rod problems.
Toyota said at the time it was not recalling the U.S. products because it believed unique steering designs and operating conditions for the Japanese vehicles ruled out any wider issue, according to documents on the matter.
Almost a year later, Toyota told NHTSA it would recall certain vehicles, including model year 1989-95 4Runner sport utilities, as well as model year 1993-98 T100 pickups to address possible fatigue cracking in steering relay rods.
Last week, NHTSA said it was alerted to a number of U.S. consumer complaints filed with Toyota prior to the original 2004 recall in Japan.
U.S. law requires an automaker to notify regulators within five business days of discovering a defect.
Toyota said in a statement it is reviewing NHTSA's request for information about the recall and will cooperate with the investigation.
(Reporting by John Crawley; editing by Andre Grenon)