Federal officials open probe of Toyota Highlander hybrid

Feb 22 2011 - 3:12pm

LOS ANGELES -- Federal safety regulators are looking into reports that the 2006 model year Toyota Highlander hybrid SUV is prone to stalling.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it has received 32 complaints from drivers alleging incidents of the vehicle stalling unexpectedly. About two-thirds of the incidents occurred at speeds of 40 mph or more.

In most of the cases, the vehicles could not be restarted and had to be taken in for service.

The NHTSA said on its website Tuesday the complaints apparently are increasing, with all but one received within the last year. There were no reports of injuries or accidents caused by the stalling. The investigation will involve about 44,000 vehicles, officials said.

Toyota has been the focus of intense scrutiny from safety regulators for more than a year because of problems with unintended acceleration and other issues with its vehicles.

In December, Toyota agreed to pay $32.4 million in fines for failing to promptly notify regulators and issue a recall when it knew of defects involving the potential for floor mats to entrap gas pedals and for another defect that could cause a loss of steering.

And last April, the company agreed to a record $16.4 million fine for delaying notification to regulators about a problem with sticky gas pedals. The fines were the largest ever levied against an automaker.

Following a 10-month investigation into the acceleration issues, the NHTSA said two weeks ago that the problems in Toyota vehicles and their sister Lexus models were caused by mechanical rather than electronic systems.

The NHTSA launched the $1.5 million study in March and sought the help of NASA engineers in looking at whether electronic defects or software code errors could account for the thousands of reported cases of sudden acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles over the last decade.

Toyota Motor Corp. has recalled millions of cars in the U.S. over the past 18 months to replace floor mats and sticking gas pedals that were blamed for the acceleration problems and other defects in its vehicles.

The recalls and fines have hurt the company's standing in the U.S. auto market. Toyota's share of the U.S. auto sales fell to 15.2 percent last year, from 17 percent in 2009.

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