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Toyota's gas-pedal problems grow

AUTOMOBILES

The carmaker adds 1.1 million more vehicles to its floor mat recall and comes under increasing scrutiny for its handling of the matter. A congressional panel plans an investigation.

January 28, 2010|By Ralph Vartabedian and Ken Bensinger
  • Earl Stewart, owner of Earl Stewart Toyota in North Palm Beach, Fla., shows the gas pedal in a recalled car.
Earl Stewart, owner of Earl Stewart Toyota in North Palm Beach, Fla., shows… (Alan Diaz / Associated Press )

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.

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