By recalling nearly 2.2 million vehicles Thursday, Toyota is hoping it has finally gotten its arms around sudden-acceleration problems that have dogged the automaker for more than a year.
In announcing two new recalls and a huge expansion of a 2009 recall in the United States, the Japanese automaker has convinced federal regulators that it had taken a close look at their complaint data and addressed the outstanding issues. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said that, in the wake of Thursday's recalls, its investigation of Toyota's sudden-acceleration cases is now closed.
"We saw this as an opportunity, with NHTSA's urging, to make a deep dive into the NHTSA database," says Brian Lyons, a Toyota spokesman. Already, the company had seen an 85 percent drop from last spring in the number of customers bringing their cars into dealerships because they had a sudden-acceleration problem or were worried that they had a problem. By examining the complaints still being reported in the federal database and addressing them with Thursday's recalls, the company hopes to further reduce sudden-acceleration complaints, Mr. Lyons says.
NHTSA had already announced earlier this month that its 10-month study had found no electronic flaws in the automaker's acceleration system that could produce sudden acceleration.
That left "sticky" accelerators and mechanical interference (basically, floor mats or carpeting components jamming accelerators) as the only known causes for sudden acceleration, the agency said, a problem that has sparked some 3,000 complaints and dozens of lawsuits.
Since 2009, Toyota had recalled more than 14 million vehicles worldwide – nearly 8 million in the United States alone – to fix those two issues.
On Thursday, Toyota added more than 2 million vehicles to the US tally, all involving mechanical interference. The two new recalls involve new problems where plastic carpeting covers, rather than floor mats, pose a potential hazard.
For example, in Toyota GS 300 and 350 models, which had never been recalled for floor mats, the company found that if technicians doing air-conditioning or other work didn't replace the factory carpeting correctly, a plastic pad running parallel to the accelerator could jam the accelerator.
Similarly, if a plastic carpeting cover on some models of the Highland and Toyota RX came loose, it could interfere with the accelerator pedal arm. The two recalls involve some 789,000 vehicles:
- 397,000 Highlander and Highlander HV vehicles from model years 2004-06
- 372,000 RX 330, 350, and 400h models from 2004 to early 2007
- 20,000 GS 300 and 350 all-wheel drive models from 2006 and early 2007
Nearly two-thirds of Thursday's recalled vehicles were part of an expansion of a Toyota November 2009 recall involving floor mats. The vehicles involved there are:
Owners affected by the recalls will be notified by mail when they can take their vehicle to a dealer to be fixed. The first notices to go out will probably be the GS 300 and 350 owners in early March.
None of this means that Toyota has put its sudden-acceleration problems behind it. There are still the lawsuits to contend with.
"Something new could pop up tomorrow," Lyons says. "We continue to look at all issues on our vehicles."
But perhaps the company is turning the corner on the issue.
"It's not so much whether there's another Toyota recall," says Mike Rozembajgier, vice president of recalls for ExpertRECALL, a recall-management firm based in Indianapolis. "The company has to be perceived as knowledgeable and proactive."