Poised to reclaim the No. 1 car company title from General Motors Co., Toyota has agreed to settle class-action lawsuits related to unintended acceleration claims.
The settlement, if accepted by a federal judge, will cost the carmaker more than $1.1 billion.
The suits were filed after the Japanese automaker recalled some 14 million vehicles in 2009 and 2010 because of reports of sudden acceleration. Toyota blamed the problem on driver error, sticky accelerator pedals or gas pedals becoming entangled with improper floor mats.
Lawsuits claiming personal injuries and deaths from the issue begin going to trial in federal court in California in February, but in the meantime, Toyota proposes spending $250 million to reimburse customers who lost value when they sold their vehicles after the recalls, and spending hundreds of millions more to install a brake-override system on as many as 3.25 million vehicles that will make it impossible to accelerate when the brakes are applied.
Toyota will offer extended warranties of up to 150,000 miles covering the engine control module, cruise control switch, accelerator pedal assembly, stop lamp switch and throttle body assembly.
Testing by federal regulators found Toyota's electronics systems were not at fault, a claim made in some of the lawsuits, but the company paid nearly $70 million in fines to the government for delaying recalls of vehicles after the pedal entrapment issues surfaced.
Toyota head Akio Toyoda, testified before Congress in 2010 as the company took a public black eye.
"Toyota wants to put its unintended acceleration recalls behind it once and for all," said senior auto industry analyst Jesse Toprak of the research site TrueCar.com. "As costly as it may be, this settlement will allow them to remove most of the lingering financial uncertainty."
Toyota can afford to settle. The company has rebounded from the recalls and 2011 earthquake and tsunami that stalled production in Japan and expects to sell 9.7 million vehicles worldwide this year. Sales have jumped 28 percent in the United States putting it on pace to post a $9.5 billion profit for the year ending March 31, 2013.
Limos for more than weddings and funerals
My first limo ride was totally by accident when my "red-eye" flight landed at a snowbound Chicago airport at 5:45 a.m. and there were few passengers and fewer taxicabs about.
After I claimed my checked bags, a man in a pressed black suit approached me near the exit door of the terminal. He was a limo driver whose passenger never made it to the airport.
"Need a car?" he asked. "My passenger didn't make it."
I looked out the door at the blinding snow whipping past outside and said sure. We agreed on a price and the luxury ride home only cost me about $5 more than taxi would have -- had any taxis been available.
The limo was a black Lincoln Town Car complete with a television set and a bar in the back, but contrary to popular belief, the driver did not wear a black livery cap.
Now the venerable Town Car is history and U.S. limousine companies are looking for a replacement vehicle that conveys the same sense of luxury but saves a little on gas.
"We were sad to see the Town Car go away. It served us very well," Gary Kessler, Chief Executive Officer of Carey's, the world's largest livery company, told The Detroit News recently.
Eighty-five percent of Kessler's U.S. livery fleet is made up of Lincoln Town Cars but the CEO sees the end of the big Town Car as an opportunity.
High on the list of possible replacements is a new livery package version of Cadillac's flagship XTS. Other contenders include an upscale version of the 2013 Toyota Avalon -- which is actually smaller than the 2012 model -- and a posh version of Chrysler's 300 Sedan. Chrysler has tried a limo before but it was discontinued in 2011.
Lincoln offers a livery version of its MKT crossover but the modern vehicle failed to evoke the classy authority an old chauffeur-driven Town Car had.
The News says the next generation of limos will feature technology to allow passengers to work online, charge multiple mobile devices, and monitor their location all in the comfort of heated leather seats with privacy guaranteed by power sunshades.
"We're really at a watershed event," said Kessler. "There isn't a clear replacement for the Town Car. But the more people who are in this space, the more that is going to raise the bar on the vehicles from which we can choose."
Taxi of Tomorrow not ready for prime time
New York City's choice for its "Taxi of Tomorrow" may not make it past today.
That's after City Controller John Liu rejected the Bloomberg administration's $1 billion contract with Nissan that would convert the city's entire fleet of yellow cabs to non-handicap accessible versions of the commercial NV200 minivan.
The change was necessitated by the demise of Ford's Crown Victoria sedan.
The Committee for Traffic Safety, a trade association that manages about 15 percent of New York City cabs, filed a lawsuit claiming the city's 10-year contract with Nissan created an unfair monopoly.
The Japanese automaker won the contract in May 2011 after a two-year bidding process.
The suit did not name Nissan but argues the city did not have the authority to choose a single vehicle for a taxicab.
"Taxicab medallion and vehicle owners ... will have all choices eliminated and will instead be required to purchase and drive the NV200 and the NV200 only," the association said. "The Nissan NV200 is not yet in production and thus completely untested under normal operating conditions for New York City taxicabs, including stop-and-go traffic for 24 hours, seven days a week."
Nissan has said the NV200 will be specifically engineered to handle New York City road conditions. The minivan has sliding side doors, flat seats, spacious luggage room, mobile device charging stations and reading lights.
For his part, Liu said the city's failure to provide wheelchair-accessible vehicles violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. The city's legal department disagrees. Liu said it would cost an estimated $14,000 per vehicle to add a wheelchair ramp to make the minivan handicap-accessible, The (Queens) Times Ledger said.
"We should not go ahead with a so-called Taxi of Tomorrow that perpetuates a shamefully separate and unequal cab fleet for another decade," Liu said in a statement. "We must not allow New York's yellow taxi fleet to become a symbol of exclusion that tramples the rights of wheelchair users."
Car names: Infiniti to keep it simple
There's more art than science in car names. Detroit has given us the Mustang, the Maverick, the Pinto and the Fiesta seeking to evoke imagery of the old America West.
GM had the Cobalt, Camaro and Corvette.
Technocratic German manufacturers and their imitators tend to favor letters and numbers and the Japanese have used combinations ranging from cute names like the Datsun Sunny and Toyota Tercel to the Infiniti's 1989 flagship Q45 sedan.
Infiniti says simpler is better.
Its new sports sedan will be called the Q50, the first in a lineup of sedans, coupes and convertibles all sharing the letter Q, replacing an alphabet soup of the letters G, M and JX, each followed by two numerals.
All Infiniti crossover and SUV models will share the prefix QX, the existing G coupe and convertible will be renamed the Q60 and the M luxury sedan will be the Q70.
The 2014 Infiniti Q50 makes its debut in January at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Nissan, Infiniti's parent, says it wants potential buyers looking at its 23-year-old luxury brand to immediately understand its model lineup.
Infiniti said its new naming system gives consumers "clarity and cohesiveness."
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