WASHINGTON — The Transportation Department demanded documents related to Toyota's massive recalls in the United States on Tuesday to find out if the automaker acted swiftly enough, with the leverage of a $16.4 million fine if it is determined that Toyota was too slow.
Toyota, meanwhile, said it will idle production temporarily at plants in San Antonio and Georgetown, Ky., over concerns that the recalls could lead to big stockpiles of unsold vehicles.
The legal documents demand that Toyota tell the government when and how the company learned of the safety defects in millions of vehicles over the entrapment of gas pedals by floor mats and sticky accelerators. The documents were delivered to Toyota on Tuesday, and the company must respond within 30 to 60 days or face fines.
The intensifying government investigation of Toyota and production halts at its assembly plants represent more signs of the ripple effect the recall of 8.5 million vehicles worldwide has had on the world's No. 1 automaker. Toyota faces separate investigations by the Obama administration and Congress as it struggles to maintain its customer base and its reputation for safety and quality.
Company spokesman Mike Goss said the Texas plant, which builds the Tundra pickup truck, would take production breaks for the weeks of March 15 and April 12. The Kentucky plant, which makes the Camry, Avalon and Venza vehicles, plans to take a nonproduction day on Feb. 26 and may not build vehicles on three more days in March and April.
Toyota employs 1,850 workers at the Texas plant and about 6,850 at the Kentucky facility.
Consumer groups are critical
The information requests from the government, similar to a subpoena, follows criticism from consumer groups that the Transportation Department was too soft on automakers and failed to fine the companies or seek detailed information from them through subpoena powers.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has defended his department's handling of the Toyota investigation, calling the Japanese automaker "a little safety deaf" about the safety problems. LaHood said the government urged Toyota to issue recalls and sent federal safety officials to Japan to warn company officials of the seriousness of the problems.
Under federal law, automakers must notify the department's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration within five days of determining that a safety defect exists and promptly conduct a recall.
Government investigators are looking into whether Toyota discovered the problems during preproduction or post-production of the affected vehicles, whether their recalls covered all affected vehicles and whether the company learned of the problems through consumer complaints or internal tests.
The safety agency also wants to know how seriously Toyota considered the possibility that electronics of the gas pedal system may play a role. The company has said tests show that the electronics were not to blame. But federal safety officials want to know how Toyota dealt with complaints that might not be related to floor mats or sticking pedals.
Congress is also investigating. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is holding a hearing on the Toyota recalls on Feb. 24 and the House Energy and Commerce Committee has scheduled a Feb. 25 hearing. Toyota Motor North America chief executive Yoshi Inaba, LaHood and safety agency administrator David Strickland are expected to testify at both meetings.
The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has scheduled a March 2 hearing but has not yet announced its witness list.
Toyota president Akio Toyoda is expected to answer questions in Japan today about the company's recalls.