By Ken Bensinger and Ralph Vartabedian, Los Angeles Times
February 25, 2011
Try as it might, Toyota Motor Corp. can't seem to put its safety woes behind it.
Two weeks ago, the Japanese automaker trumpeted the results of a NASA study that cleared its vehicles of having electronic defects that could cause sudden acceleration.
But any hope that its biggest safety crisis was finally over dissolved Thursday, as Toyota announced that it would recall 2.17 million additional vehicles to correct mechanical defects that could cause them to accelerate out of control.
All told, Toyota has now issued more than 13 million product recalls since September 2009 in the U.S. alone. With hundreds of lawsuits pending, safety experts and industry analysts contend that quality problems could haunt the world's largest automaker for years to come, affecting both its reputation and bottom line.
The new recalls are "certain to revive consumer concerns about a safety issue the company has strived for a year to minimize," said Bill Visnic, senior analyst at automotive website Edmunds.com, adding that the news could further hurt Toyota's sales and market share.
Under pressure from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Toyota said Thursday that it was initiating two new recalls and expanding an existing recall to address defects that could cause accelerator pedals to become entrapped.
The action affects six Toyota and Lexus models, dating back as far as the 2003 model year and including the popular RAV4 and 4Runner SUVs, to fix floor mats that can entrap pedals as well as interior panels and pads that can interfere with pedals.
In a letter to government regulators Thursday, Toyota laid out an extensive number of repairs that it will be required to make, some of which have not yet been developed. In the case of the Highlander and the Lexus RX, Toyota said that it would repair the defect by replacing a carpet trim panel near the accelerator.
The repairs to the Lexus GS models involve the replacement of a plastic pad embedded in the carpet that can catch the accelerator pedal. And on the 4Runner, RAV4 and Lexus LX, Toyota is still developing a fix but will probably have to modify the gas pedal and a replace all-weather floor mats.
Toyota has now issued nearly 10 million recalls for sudden acceleration alone since September 2009, when it first said that floor mats could interfere with the gas pedal.
Four months later, the company said it had also determined that sticking pedals could produce sudden acceleration.
In the last year, it has paid three federal fines totaling nearly $50 million for delaying recalls.
According to NHTSA, the new recalls were the result of an investigation it launched a year ago into the scope of Toyota's original floor mat recall. In a statement, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said the regulator had reviewed more than 400,000 pages of Toyota documents.
"As a result of the agency's review, NHTSA asked Toyota to recall these additional vehicles," Strickland said. "Now that the company has done so, our case is closed."
Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons stopped short of guaranteeing this would be the last sudden acceleration recall, but he predicted that the latest recalls would significantly reduce consumer complaints.
"We're confident that we have properly addressed the concerns here," he said.
Yet the drawn-out nature of the recalls, which have swelled over time to incorporate far more cars and trucks than originally announced, has given many consumers pause.
"Either [Toyota's] investigators were incompetent or they just had their head in the sand," said Barbara Shepherd of Harbor Springs, Mich., who said her 2005 Highlander accelerated on its own while in reverse, leading to a crash that caused her spinal and brain injuries.
Although Toyota recalled some Highlanders in 2006 to address a sudden acceleration risk from pedal entrapment, Shepherd's vehicle was not included. As part of its latest recalls, Toyota said it would recall 397,000 Highlanders, as well as 372,000 Lexus RX SUVs.
That action would have included Shepherd's. She is suing the automaker.
Toyota's attempts to deal with sudden acceleration go back years, including a 2007 recall to address floor mat entrapment. And its 2009 floor mat recall, initiated after a San Diego crash that left four people dead and drew national attention to the issue, has been expanded three times since it was first announced — growing to 6.4 million vehicles from the original 3.8 million.
Clarence Ditlow, who heads the Center for Auto Safety, said his group continues to receive credible complaints about sudden acceleration, however, leading him to suspect there may be problems beyond floor mats and gas pedals.
"What are they going to blame next? They have done carpets and they have done pedals," he said.
Ditlow testified before an internal Toyota quality panel Thursday that through the first nine months of 2010, Toyota submitted reports to regulators of 116 death and injury claims related to speed control for vehicles covered by the recalls.
Beyond the recalls, the automaker still faces hundreds of personal injury, death and economic damages lawsuits in state and federal courts. Attorneys in those cases suggested that the latest recall would probably lead to more lawsuits.
"This sort of revelation calls into question the veracity and credibility of other declarations the company has made," said Steve Berman, a Seattle attorney who is helping manage economic damages cases that have been combined in federal court in Santa Ana. "If you ask an average consumer whether a Toyota is worth more or less in light of these serial recalls, the vast majority will say 'less.'"
So far, Toyota has fixed 3.65 million vehicles in its floor mat recall and 1.9 million in its sticking pedal recall, Lyons said.
None of the vehicles in the latest round of recalls would receive a brake override, a feature that it announced it would add to seven models it recalled in 2009 and 2010.
"Brake override is an extra measure of confidence," Lyons said. "It is not part of these recalls."
Timothy Scott said his 2007 Lexus RX accelerated on its own in early December and he was only able to stop it by braking with both feet and then shoving the transmission into park. The Lexus was towed to a dealer, who told Scott that an obstruction had jammed the accelerator pedal.
Over the next two months, Toyota came up with three explanations for the problem and ultimately bought back the vehicle. It is one of the models included in the latest recalls.
"I spent 11 years in law enforcement and I don't scare easily," said Scott, a police union official in Sarasota, Fla. "But when that car would not stop and the engine was redlining, it scared the hell out of me."
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