Toyota dealers to start fixing defective gas pedals


Toyota Motor Corp. apologized to customers on Monday as it announced a plan to fix a sticking pedal problem that led it to halt sales and production of eight models.

“We are truly sorry for what has happened,” said Jim Lentz, president and chief operating officer of Toyota’s U.S. sales division in a conference call with reporters. He detailed the remedy, which he said was already being shipped to dealerships so that repairs could begin this week.

“We’re sorry for what we put our customers through,” Lentz added.

The sales stoppage, which company executives have characterized as unprecedented at the six-decade-old company, has put a big dent in Toyota’s reputation for quality. A poll by HCD Research showed that 56% of respondents said they were less likely to buy a Toyota after watching Lentz’s appearance on the NBC’s “Today” show to explain the fix Monday morning.

The Japanese automaker said that it had isolated the problem to a “friction device” within the pedals in the more than 4 million vehicles it has recalled worldwide and -- in the U.S. -- temporarily stopped selling and producing altogether.

The fix, which Toyota characterized as “both effective and simple,” involves installing a steel reinforcement bar into the pedal assembly in order to reduce friction.

While that fix will be conducted on consumers’ vehicles, newly produced cars and trucks subject to the action will receive entirely new pedal assemblies, Toyota said. Production of those vehicles, on six assembly lines in the U.S. and Canada, ceased Monday, but will begin again Feb. 8, the automaker said.

Bob Waltz, Toyota’s vice president of product quality and service support, said the automaker had rigorously tested both fixes and that they would “last for as long as the life of the vehicle.”

With parts arriving later this week, many dealerships will remain open 24 hours a day to make the repair, officials said.

Toyota has come under increasing fire for its decision last month to announce the recall of the defective pedals, which the automaker said can cause vehicles to suddenly accelerate out of control, without immediately determining a remedy. That step, along with a subsequent announcement last week that it would halt all sales and production of some of its most popular vehicles, led to widespread confusion among consumers and dealers.

The affected models -- the Corolla, RAV4, Matrix, Avalon, Highlander, Tundra, Sequoia and certain Camry sedans -- represented 57% of Toyota’s U.S. sales last year. In addition, the Pontiac Vibe, made by Toyota in a joint venture with General Motors Co., was named in the recall.

Last week, rival automakers including General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Hyundai Motor Co., announced sales incentives aimed at Toyota owners, while Toyota’s stock price fell more than 15%. In early trading Monday, Toyota shares increased $2.49, or 3.2%.

The sticking pedal recall, which affects 2.3 million vehicles in the U.S. and 1.8 million in Europe, is Toyota’s second in recent months to handle a nagging sudden acceleration problem.

Last fall, Toyota said it would recall seven models to prevent the risk that the vehicles’ floor mats could entrap the gas pedal, which it says can cause vehicles to accelerate out of control. Last month, it expanded the recall to include five additional models, increasing the overall scope of that action to 5.3 million cars and trucks, its largest recall ever.

Toyota has blamed floor mat interference in a San Diego county accident in a Lexus ES that took the lives of a California Highway Patrol officer and his family last August and brought national attention to the issue. A San Diego County Sheriff’s report on the accident indicated that while floor mats could be the culprit, other mechanical or electronic problems, including the vehicle’s electronic throttle control system, could not be ruled out.

Many safety experts question the idea that sudden acceleration is caused by sticking pedals or floor mats. They suggest that the problem, which the Times has found has caused at least 19 deaths since 2001 -- more than all other automakers combined -- is housed in the complex electronics housed in Toyota vehicles.

Toyota’s Waltz denied Monday that the computers and wiring in cars were at fault, saying the company had run “extensive testing” of vehicles yet has “never been able to get our systems to fail in any of the tests that are done on them.”

In the pedal recall, Toyota has pointed the finger at supplier CTS Corp., which makes many of the pedals used in Toyota vehicles made in North America. The Elkhart, Ind.-based company subsequently said that it was cooperating with the automaker to make a fix, although it noted that the design was Toyota’s.

On Friday, the supplier denied that its pedals had ever been the cause of sudden acceleration, which it said was a problem in Toyota vehicles dating prior to the time the automaker began using CTS parts.

Documents filed with federal safety officials indicate that Toyota knew of problems with pedals in at least one of the recalled vehicles in early 2007. Asked about that issue, Lentz said it was a question of the materials used in the pedal rather than excessive friction on internal components. He said the automaker worked to isolate the problem as quickly as possible.

Of the new remedy, Lentz said: “We think this is going to fix the problem.”

Nonetheless, the company has suffered a fierce public backlash over its handling of the problem, which has led to thousands of angry calls to dealers and, the company said, an overwhelming of its phone bank for its U.S. headquarters in Torrance.

On Sunday, Toyota took out full page ads in major newspapers to explain its decision to halt sales and production of the affected models.

Toyota has advised drivers who experience sudden acceleration to step firmly on the brake, with two feet if necessary, shift the vehicle into neutral, steer it to a safe location and turn off the ignition.

“It’s embarrassing for us to have this kind of recall situation,” Lentz said. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve lost our edge on quality.”