Toyota Motor, reeling from a public-relations fiasco over accelerator problems, on Feb. 3 reported dozens of complaints in North America and Japan about brake failure on its popular Prius hybrid.
Toyota is a pioneer in fuel-sipping hybrids and any new question marks over the safety of the Prius could deal a major setback to its efforts to recover from massive recalls and heavy losses inflicted by the global economic crisis.
"As of the end of last year, we had dozens of complaints from dealers in Japan and North America," Toyota spokeswoman Mieko Iwasaki said. The automaker is investigating the reports, which involve the new Prius model rolled out last year, she added.
Japan's transport ministry said it had received at least 13 complaints about Prius brakes in the two months to January alone.
Another Prius driver complained that his brakes failed last July, leading to a collision that slightly injured two people, a ministry official said.
"Many complaints were submitted in a short period of time. We are investigating the cases to determine what measures the ministry should take," the official said, without ruling out the possibility of a recall.
Japanese media reported that the United States' National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had received more than 100 complaints about the brakes of the new Prius.
Toyota shares slumped 5.7% to 3,400 yen on Jan. 3 as investors reacted nervously to the reports of problems with the Prius, as well as figures showing a sharp drop in the automaker's U.S. sales in January.
"Hybrid cars are almost the only cars selling well now in Japan and the U.S. If (the Prius) has a serious problem, that will have a strong impact on Toyota's performance," said Tatsuya Mizuno, analyst at Mizuno Credit Advisory.
Prius cars made between 2004 and 2009 are among the models being recalled due to the risk of the accelerator pedal getting trapped in the fully open position by the floor mat.
Toyota's U.S. unit said it had developed a fix for accelerator pedals and had started shipping parts to U.S. dealers for repairs. But Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak said he believed Toyota's troubles with a defective accelerator pedal might be linked to software, after his Prius sped up while in cruise-control. "Since my foot never touches the pedal," Wozniak told ABC News, the problem "cannot be a sticky accelerator pedal.... There might be some bad software in there."
The problems already appear to have hurt Toyota's sales, which fell below 100,000 vehicles in the United States in January for the first time in more than a decade, according to research firm Autodata.
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2010
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