Toyota's gas-pedal problems grow

Toyota Motor Corp.'s sudden-acceleration troubles mounted Wednesday, with the automaker adding 1.1 million more vehicles to an already massive recall even as it came under increasing fire for its handling of the problem.

The new attention was triggered by Toyota's unprecedented decision this week to halt sales and production of eight models, including its popular Corolla and Camry sedans, until it could figure out how to stop their gas pedals from getting stuck and causing runaway acceleration.

The problems threatened to snowball for Toyota, which is now facing a congressional investigation, the prospect of an expanded recall into other markets, and a severe blow to its once-stellar reputation.

This morning, Toyota announced that it would extend the recall to Europe, although it had not determined yet how many vehicles or which models would be affected. The company said in a statement that details of the recall would be "communicated directly" with car owners.

The carmaker added that new parts had already been introduced for some models on its assembly lines in Europe and that there was "no need or intention to stop production" on the continent.

In the U.S., at least three major rental car companies said they were temporarily removing tens of thousands of Toyota vehicles from their fleets, while dealers braced for a costly loss in sales and Toyota owners worried about whether their vehicles were safe.

"We are growing very concerned about the public-safety issue," Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), chairman of the oversight and investigation panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in an interview. "The problem has not been exactly identified. Therefore you have no solution and consumers are left in the lurch."

Stupak said that his subcommittee was launching an investigation and that his staff met with Toyota representatives Wednesday.

Adding to the controversy, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a radio interview that the federal government had "ordered" Toyota to stop sales to the public. That appeared to contradict Toyota's statement a day earlier that it had acted on its own.

Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons on Wednesday reiterated that the automaker had initiated the so-called stop sale without prodding from federal regulators.

Amid rising consumer complaints, Toyota had maintained for months that the problem was caused by floor mats trapping the accelerator -- leading to last fall's sweeping recall of 4.3 million vehicles. That stance changed abruptly last week, when Toyota announced a recall of 2.3 million vehicles it said had defective gas pedal mechanisms.

In yet another twist, Toyota on Wednesday expanded the original floor mat recall to include five additional models.

The new models are the 2008 to 2010 Highlander, 2009 and 2010 Corolla, 2009 and 2010 Venza, 2009 and 2010 Matrix, and the 2009 and 2010 Pontiac Vibe, which the company makes for General Motors Co.

The previous floor mat recall targeted certain models of Camry, Lexus, Avalon, Prius, Tacoma and Tundra vehicles.

The company also disclosed Wednesday that it might extend the recall to Europe and other markets because the suspected defective parts are used outside North America. It would be the first time that the sudden-acceleration issue has spread beyond the U.S.

The flurry of new actions, for a problem the automaker has been aware of for months, triggered questions about why Toyota took so long to act.

In announcing the gas pedal recall last week, Toyota announced no immediate plans to stop selling vehicles with a potentially dangerous defect -- although it posted instructions on how motorists should deal with a runaway vehicle (brake firmly, shift into neutral and pull over).

That prompted officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to contact the company Monday to say it was violating federal motor vehicle safety laws that explicitly forbid an automaker from selling vehicles with known defects.

In a statement to The Times on Wednesday, NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said his agency "informed Toyota of their obligations, and they complied with the law. Their decision to halt sales was legally and morally the right thing to do."

Toyota has been aware of a possible defect for years. In documents filed with NHTSA last week, Toyota said it had been investigating problems with sticking pedals since March 2007.

That could be a potential liability for Toyota, said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law in Virginia.

"There is this lingering doubt about what they knew and when," said Tobias, who specializes in product liability issues. "One of the questions that's going to be asked is whether Toyota should have done this faster."

Indeed, federal regulators have conducted eight investigations into sudden-acceleration problems in Toyota and Lexus vehicles over the last decade.

Toyota conducted limited recalls until last year, when the issue gained national attention after an off-duty California Highway Patrol officer and three relatives were killed in a runaway Lexus ES350. Toyota has blamed that accident on a floor mat that trapped the gas pedal down.

For the floor mat problem, the company said its remedy is to modify or replace the accelerator pedals, as well as modify the floors of the vehicles. It will also replace the company-supplied all-weather floor mats or refund the cost of those floor mats.

To address the gas pedal problem that triggered the sales freeze, Toyota plans to replace or modify the pedal mechanism. In a statement late Wednesday, Toyota said the supplier of the pedal, CTS Corp., had come up with a replacement part and that "pedals featuring the revised design are now in full production."

For their part, Toyota's 1,200 U.S. dealers spent much of the day assessing which of their vehicles were affected and how to adjust their advertising to make up for the vehicles they could no longer sell.

In a conference call with Toyota late Wednesday, dealers asked Toyota to provide sales incentives on the vehicles they can still sell, as well as help on financing charges for the Camry, Corolla, Rav4 and other vehicles they can't.

The United Auto Workers union, along with the Teamsters, said Wednesday that it would hold a rally in front of the Japanese Embassy in Washington. Teamsters President James P. Hoffa and other union leaders are protesting Toyota's decision to close its only union plant in the U.S., in Fremont, Calif., and are calling the automaker "a danger to America" in light of the recall issues.

The controversy has left Toyota "scrambling to handle a problem that seems to be spinning out of control," said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., an industry research group.

"I met with Toyota people this month, and they are totally upside down. They'd do anything to stop this," Cole said.

"This is potentially very dangerous for Toyota," he added. "Everything now depends on how they handle this."

ralph.vartabedian@

latimes.com

ken.bensinger@latimes.com

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