Toyota Motor Corp. launched a major new recall Thursday, saying a mechanical problem could cause the gas pedals to stick and cause unwanted acceleration in 2.3 million of its vehicles, including recent models of its popular Camry and Corolla sedans.
Most of the vehicles targeted by the new recall were also included in a separate recall of 4.3 million vehicles late last year involving floor mats that could jam the accelerator pedal open.
In issuing its latest recall, Toyota has for the first time acknowledged that a mechanical problem could cause its vehicles to accelerate out of control.
"In the past they've unequivocally said that floor mats are the problem," said Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies Inc., which has researched motorist complaints of sudden acceleration. "Now they suddenly find something else to blame."
The Times has reported that at least 19 people had been killed in U.S. accidents involving runaway Toyota and Lexus vehicles, more than all other automakers combined. It also found that complaints of unintended acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles rose sharply after 2001, when the automaker began installing electronic throttle controls.
Kane and other safety experts say there is evidence to suggest that malfunctions by these electronic controls, sometimes known as "drive-by-wire" systems, may be a factor in the rising complaints.
In launching Thursday's recall, Toyota executives said the culprit appeared to be the pedal mechanism itself.
"We have not found any problems with the electronic throttle control system that would lead to sudden acceleration," said spokesman Bryan Lyons.
He added, however, that the automaker was continuing to investigate potential problems that could cause sudden acceleration and would "not rule anything out."
The issue first came to national attention after an August 2009 crash of a Lexus ES 350 near San Diego that took four lives and prompted a public apology from Toyota's president, Akio Toyoda. That led to the eventual 4.3-million-vehicle recall, Toyota's largest ever.
Toyota led all automakers in the total number of vehicles recalled in the U.S. last year, a first for the Japanese automaker.
"This situation is slowly spiraling out of control," said James Bell, executive market analyst at auto research firm Kelley Blue Book.
"As a company with a reputation for steadiness, these must be uncomfortable days for Toyota."
The new recall affects the 2005-10 Avalon, the 2007-10 Camry, the 2009-10 Corolla, the 2010 Highlander, the 2009-10 Matrix, the 2009-10 RAV4, the 2008-10 Sequoia and the 2007-10 Tundra.
Of the 2.3 million vehicles affected by this recall, 1.7 million were included in the floor-mat campaign.
The new recall also includes the 2009-10 Pontiac Vibe, which until recently was manufactured by Toyota in a joint venture with General Motors at their shared Fremont, Calif., plant.
Toyota said the new action was triggered by reports from motorists who complained that their accelerator pedals remained depressed after they took their foot off the gas.
"The condition is rare," Toyota said in a statement, "but can occur when the pedal mechanism becomes worn and, in certain conditions, the accelerator pedal may become harder to depress, slower to return or, in the worst case, stuck in a partially depressed position. Toyota is working quickly to prepare the correction remedy."
Toyota has not yet determined how it will fix the sticking-pedal problem, and in the interim it is asking drivers who experience the issue to halt the car with "firm and steady application of the brakes" and to notify a Toyota dealer immediately.
According to a letter filed by Toyota to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Thursday, the automaker first heard complaints about pedal malfunction in the Tundra truck in March 2007.
It subsequently launched an investigation into the problem after similar issues arose involving two models sold in Europe. That led to a design change for vehicles using that type of pedal in Europe.
Starting last October, the letter said, Toyota began receiving more complaints of sticking pedals in the U.S. and Canada, a problem the automaker attributed to condensation forming on a friction surface under certain circumstances.
The letter also identified a single manufacturer, CTS Corp.of Elkhart, Ind., as the producer of the suspect pedal assembly.
Reached by telephone, CTS Chief Executive Vinod M. Khilnani said he was "aware of several Toyota recalls but not of any details beyond that."
He said that CTS manufactures pedal assemblies for Toyota in Canada, Britain and China, among other places, and that the parts could be on Toyota vehicles in numerous countries.
"We do sell them all over the world," Khilnani said.
Toyota spokesman Lyons said that the new recall affected only the U.S. and Canada and that he did not know whether the automaker was considering extending it to other countries.
Toyota's floor-mat recall is also limited to North America, and representatives have said that it wouldn't affect other markets because the mats at issue are not sold elsewhere.
In that recall, the automaker is replacing or modifying pedals, swapping out floor mats, altering interior carpeting and installing software so that the brake overrides the throttle.
Toyota declined to indicate how many complaints of pedal sticking it had found. It did indicate, however, that a recent case of a runaway Avalon could stem from that problem.
Three days before Christmas, a Pittstown, N.J., man reported experiencing sudden acceleration in an Avalon that appeared unrelated to floor-mat entrapment.
Although safety investigators had suggested it could be related to the sedan's electronics, Toyota spokesman Lyons said that the automaker had taken possession of the vehicle's throttle body and pedal assembly and had found that the pedal was prone to the sticking problem.
"It matches our recall finding exactly," Lyons said.
Michael L. Kelly, an attorney in El Segundo who filed a lawsuit last fall requesting class-action status against Toyota for unintended acceleration, said he was considering filing a second suit based on the new recall.
"I'm going to find one of these vehicles this weekend and tear it apart," Kelly said.