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Investigation Opened Into Prius Brake Problems

The Transportation Department has begun an inquiry into the 2010 model of the popular Toyota hybrid. (AFP/Getty Images)

The Transportation Department said Thursday it will investigate brake problems in the 2010 Toyota Prius after the automaker acknowledged a defect and its recent recall of several of its most popular late-model vehicles for accelerator problems.

Toyota Motor Corp. confirmed that a design problem with the anti-lock brake system on its new-generation gas-electric Prius caused some drivers to experience a brief lag time when they hit the brakes.

"Safety is our top priority," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "We will continue to monitor these issues closely." On Wednesday, LaHood startled the public with a comment, which he later retracted, that Americans should park their recalled Toyotas unless driving to dealers for accelerator repairs.

There are reports that Toyota will recall 270,000 Prius hybrid vehicles over brake problems in the United States and Japan. Japan's top business newspaper, Nihon Keizai, said Friday that Toyota will soon notify Japan's transport ministry and the U.S. Department of Transportation of the recall.

The investigation is the latest in a series of headaches involving possible safety defects that have rocked the Japanese automaker and could ultimately cost it $2 billion.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, which would conduct the Prius investigation, says it has received 124 complaints from owners of the vehicle, including four allegations that crashes occurred as a result of the alleged defect. NHTSA officials say the reports allege a momentary loss of braking capability while traveling over an uneven road surface, pothole or bump. The Japanese government has announced a similar investigation.

Toyota officials say they have rewritten the software that controls braking to deal with the reported problems and are still considering what steps to take in fixing the problem. Whether a recall is necessary for the Prius was still undecided, according to Toyota executive Hiroyuki Yokoyama, but Japan's transport minister urged the company to consider it and is ordering an investigation.

Separately, Toyota has issued a recall of some 4.5 million other models for the accelerator problem, including 2009-10 RAV4 crossovers, 2009-10 Corollas, 2009-10 Matrix hatchbacks, 2005-10 Avalons, 2007-10 Camrys, 2010 Highlander crossovers, 2007-10 Tundra pickups and 2008-10 Sequoia SUVs.

Two congressional committees on Capitol Hill plan hearings this month on the recalls.

"I am in no way certain that Toyota's explanation for the cause of incidents of sudden acceleration in its vehicles satisfies me," Rep. John Dingell (R-MI) said on Wednesday.

Toyota for the first time gave an estimate of the costs of the global gas pedal recall. The $2 billion total represents $1.1 billion for repairs and $770 million to $880 million in lost sales. The automaker expects to lose 100,000 in vehicle sales because of the recall fallout — 80,000 of them in North America.

Toyota on Thursday reported a $1.7 billion profit for last quarter.

NHTSA has been criticized for failing to properly investigate complaints about Toyota that date to 2003. The agency opened several investigations but always closed them without a call for the company to act.

"I think they were behind the eight ball for a couple of years," Joan Claybrook, who headed NHTSA during the Carter administration, told NPR.

"There were complaints that came in, they opened investigations, Toyota gave them answers and they closed the investigations. I think as a result, some people have been killed and injured that wouldn't have otherwise," she said.

Also Thursday, Ford Motor Co. announced plans to fix 17,600 Mercury Milan and Ford Fusion gas-electric hybrids because of a software problem that can give drivers the impression that the brakes have failed.

The automaker says the problem occurs in transition between two braking systems and at no time are drivers without brakes.

The decision to fix the 2010 model cars came after a test driver for Consumer Reports magazine experienced the problem as he was driving a Fusion Hybrid.

Ford spokesman Said Deep says braking power seems to drop away as the car makes a transition from regenerative brakes to the conventional system. The Ford hybrids have regenerative brakes, which capture energy from braking to help recharge the battery, in addition to a conventional system that stops the car using hydraulic pressure.

Deep says Ford will notify the car owners to bring their cars in for a software fix. He said there is no safety problem with the cars. The automaker called the repairs a "customer satisfaction program" and said it was not a full-fledged recall. Deep said Ford reported the problems to a U.S. safety agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The move comes on the same day that NHTSA began an evaluation of braking problems on the 2010 Toyota Prius hybrid. With the Prius, antilock brakes can fail momentarily while the car transitions between its gasoline and electric motors.

Ford told dealers about a fix on Thursday. They already had the software to repair it in case it came up, Deep said.

From NPR staff and wire reports

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