Toyota to fix 'very dangerous' gas pedal defects

Moving to correct what federal regulators have termed a "very dangerous problem," Toyota Motor Corp. said it would modify and replace gas pedals on 4.26 million cars and trucks to reduce the vehicles' risk of accelerating out of control.

Toyota said the measures were designed to prevent floor mats from jamming the accelerator pedal open. As an additional precaution, the Japanese automaker said most of its cars would be modified so that the brake overrides the accelerator if both pedals are pressed at the same time.

The action follows widespread reports of runaway Toyota and Lexus vehicles, including an Aug. 28 crash near San Diego that killed a California Highway Patrol officer and three family members. Sudden acceleration incidents involving Toyota-made cars and trucks have claimed 19 lives since the 2002 model year, The Times has reported, which federal officials say is more than all other manufacturers combined.

"We are very, very confident that we have addressed this issue," Toyota spokesman Irv Miller told reporters in detailing the recall plans Wednesday.

Toyota declined to estimate the cost of the recall, the biggest in its history. But industry experts said it could easily top $250 million, citing the time and labor that will be needed to service more than 4 million vehicles.

Auto industry experts, while crediting Toyota for initiating the recall, questioned why the automaker had taken so long to act.

A review of consumer complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows at least 1,000 incidents of unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles in the last eight years, along with scores of accidents and injuries as well as untold property damage.

"They knew something was wrong way before that San Diego accident happened," said Rebecca Lindland, an auto industry analyst for consulting firm IHS Global Insight. "That was just the catalyst to get them to finally do something."

The recall was first announced in September, before Toyota had determined a solution to the problem. At the time, the automaker told drivers of seven models of Lexus and Toyota vehicles to temporarily remove their floor mats.

Toyota now says that it will begin notifying customers in December to bring their cars into dealerships starting in January. It will offer to reconfigure pedals on seven models of Toyota and Lexus vehicles and replace all-weather rubber floor mats and add new software to implement the brake override, at no charge to owners.

Eventually, the automaker will offer to completely replace the pedals in affected models and make the safety software a standard feature in all new vehicles. The replacement pedals have not yet been designed or manufactured.

Until recently, Toyota has maintained that its vehicles had no underlying defect and that runaway accelerations were caused by incorrectly installed floor mats wedging the accelerator pedal into a wide-open position.

The automaker's insistence that the vehicles had no defect drew a sharp rebuke this month from NHTSA, which said Toyota made "inaccurate and misleading" statements about the nature of the problem.

Instead, NHTSA said, the vehicles appeared to have flawed pedal and interior designs that could make "pedal entrapment" more likely.

By calling for pedal, floor mat, computer and other modifications, Toyota's plan appears to affirm that notion. In a statement Wednesday, NHTSA called the plan a "remedy."

Toyota presented its final plan for the recall to NHTSA officials Tuesday, Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said. With the go-ahead from NHTSA, he said, Toyota will now prepare informational packets for consumers and repair procedures for dealers.

Lyons said that because the all-weather floor mats used in North America are not used in other parts of the world, the recall would not expand beyond the U.S. and Canada.

"It's not being investigated in other markets," he said.

Toyota said the recall affects about 3.86 million vehicles in the U.S. and 400,000 in Canada. To reduce the risk of the mat snagging the gas pedal, technicians will cut off about three-quarters of an inch from the bottom of the pedal.

On Toyota Camry and Avalon and Lexus ES models, they also will replace thick foam padding under the carpeting with thinner pads to allow more clearance between the pedal and floor.

Perhaps the most important change will be the modification of software in the vehicles' engine control system that will override the throttle any time the brake is applied. The remedy will be made initially in the Camry, Avalon, Lexus ES and Lexus IS sedans but eventually in all models.

That software, often called a smart pedal, is in use by many other manufacturers as a protection against unintended acceleration but has never been used in Toyota vehicles.

Independent safety experts said that, despite the extraordinary size and cost of the recall, it may not be enough to address the problem. Many of these experts believe there may be a malfunction in the electronic engine control systems, a contention Toyota repeatedly disputed.

"I suspect the real problem is that there is something wrong with the electronics in the engine," said Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA chief and a consumer activist.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the consumer group the Center for Auto Safety, believes that the acceleration problems extend beyond the vehicles that Toyota recalled and that the brake override system should be applied to all Toyotas.

"There have been six defect petitions and investigations into floor mats on vehicles not covered by this recall," said Ditlow, who estimated Toyota's cost for this recall at more than $250 million.

Bulent Ezal's wife was killed when his 2005 Camry accelerated and plunged off a cliff in Pismo Beach, Calif. But that vehicle was not included in the recall, which affects only 2007 and later Camrys.

"The recall does nothing for my client," said attorney Raymond Paul Johnson, who has filed a product liability suit against Toyota on behalf of Ezal. His case is one of at least 10 lawsuits against Toyota for unintended acceleration, including two filed this month requesting class-action status.

Several Toyota owners who have experienced sudden acceleration were skeptical that the automaker's recall plans will be effective.

Laura Paulson of San Diego said she was unable to stop her surging 2008 Tacoma pickup from accelerating through the back wall of her garage, destroying a bathroom on the other side. Both her dealer and Toyota's national sales division told her the vehicle had no defects, and news that the automaker would now alter the vehicle's pedal did not impress Paulson. "I don't think this is going to solve the problem," she said. "The theory that floor mats cause this just does not add up."

Mary Ann Hoffman of Medford, Ore., won't be taking part in the recall. After three frightening incidents of unintended acceleration, including one with her 15-year-old daughter behind the wheel, she took her 2007 Prius to the dealership.

Last week mechanics and a Toyota field representative told her that they believed the problem lay in the pedal, which was replaced. But Hoffman, who thinks there could be some deeper electronic or mechanical problem with the car, had lost faith in the vehicle and Toyota altogether.

"I think this recall is window dressing," Hoffman said. "I don't think the problem is the pedal or the floor mat or any of that."

On Monday, she traded in her Prius for a 2008 BMW 5-series.

ken.bensinger@latimes.com

ralph.vartabedian@

latimes.com

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