The recall of 2.3 million Toyota vehicles last week to correct sticking accelerator pedals showed that the spreading controversy over unintended accelerations -- initially dismissed by the company as merely a floor mat issue -- may have roots in a more serious design flaw.
The latest recall further sullies the company's reputation for top-notch quality and effective response to safety problems. It follows a year in which Toyota recalled more vehicles than any other automaker in the United States.
Last fall, 4.2 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles were recalled. Owners were told that floor mats could entrap the accelerator pedal, causing unintended acceleration.
As recently as this month, Toyota officials said floor mat entrapment was the cause of several deadly cases of unintended acceleration.
During the Detroit auto show, Toyota Motor North America President Yoshi Inaba said a new brake override system and reshaping the pedals on all of the recalled vehicles "absolutely" should resolve the problem.
Despite last year's recall, complaints persist of sudden acceleration in cars where the floor mats have been taken out. ABC News reported last week that a 2008 Toyota Avalon sped off the road and landed upside down in a Texas pond the day after Christmas, killing four people. Police found the car's floor mats in its trunk.
The newly identified problem is caused by a mechanism that controls the accelerator pedal's return to the idle position after being depressed to the floor, a person familiar with the recall told Automotive News. Condensation can prevent the pedal from fully springing back into position.
The new problem is a rare condition but can occur in vehicles with high mileage, the person familiar with the situation said. Toyota is reviewing what kind of repair will be necessary.
Fixes under consideration include a complete replacement of the pedal and improving its lubrication. The insider offered no timetable for the fix but said replacing the pedal would take a long time because new components would have to be re-engineered and manufactured.
Toyota spokesman John Hanson confirmed the source's report that the components were made in Canada by CTS Corp., of Elkhart, Ind.
The part is specific to vehicles made in North America and does not affect cars in other markets. CTS designs and manufactures sensors and actuators including accelerator-pedal modules at its plant in Mississauga, Ontario, according to the CTS Web site. The publicly held U.S. company recorded 2008 sales of $691.7 million.
Calls to company CEO Vinod Khilnani and Mitchell Walorski, head of investor relations, were not returned. A woman who answered the phone at CTS's office in Elkhart, Ind., declined to comment.
Hanson said the problem stems from pedals that "prematurely wear" because of the supplier's faulty pedal design. He did not identify fixes Toyota is reviewing. He said he did not have the number of complaints and had no mileage information of when the pedal mechanism starts to wear.
"It's extremely rare, but it is a wear issue," Hanson said. "We wanted to get out in front of this."
Analyst Maryann Keller said the back-to-back recalls raise questions about the company's overall vehicle quality and could damage Toyota's image.
"This may cause a reassessment of the perception of the company," said Keller, head of Maryann Keller & Associates in Stamford, Conn. "Were they blind to the changes underfoot, and were their systems incapable of being effective now that they are global?"
2 notices for some owners
The latest recall means some Toyota owners will be affected by both notices. In last fall's action, owners of 2005-10 Avalons and 2007-10 Camrys were notified about the floor mats. Now those same owners will be told their accelerator pedals could stick for other reasons. The latest recall involves Toyota Division models only.
In addition to the Avalon and Camry, the second recall involves 2007-10 Tundras; 2008-10 Sequoias; 2009-10 Corollas, RAV4s and Matrixes; and 2010 Highlanders.
Also affected are 2009-10 Pontiac Vibes -- which, along with their Matrix siblings, were built at New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. in Fremont, Calif.
(Source: Automotive News)