Toyota's Big Recall Unlikely to Quiet Critics

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Joe Raedle / Getty

Toyota vehicles on sale in Miami, Dec. 22, 2008

Toyota's announcement last week that it will recall more than 3.8 million vehicles is unlikely to end the controversy over the car's sudden-acceleration problems. Following complaints about the problem — and a deadly accident in California last summer — the company acknowledged that floor mats, if not secured properly, could get stuck under the accelerator pedal, leaving a vehicle's throttle stuck open. Hence the recall, to replace the accelerator pedals and floor mats.

But critics complain that Toyota was slow to acknowledge the problem, and may still not be dealing with it adequately. "I don't think Toyota has handled it well," says Clarence Ditlow, the director of the Center of Auto Safety in Washington, D.C. Ditlow says the record shows that Toyota executives first became aware of a possible problem 10 years ago — a scenario Toyota disputes — when the company replaced the floor mats on Lexus models sold in Great Britain. "There have been six different defect petitions [filed with the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, or NHTSA]," says Ditlow.

Other critics contend that Toyota may be imposing a fix without fully understanding the problem. "For years, Toyota Motor Corporation has dismissed complaints of sudden acceleration as being the driver's fault," says David Wright, a Redlands, Calif., attorney, who recently filed a class-action lawsuit against Toyota. "But neither driver error nor floor mats can explain away many other frightening instances of runaway Toyotas. Until the company acknowledges the real problem and fixes it, we worry that other preventable injuries and deaths will occur," Wright says. He contends that errant electrical signals may be triggering some of the sudden accelerations.

Toyota spokesman Mike Michels declined to comment on a class-action lawsuit filed by Wright. However, Toyota has said in a separate statement posted on its website that it has studied accidents extensively and ran hundreds of tests in sealed chambers to see if the control module — the heart of any modern power train because it dictates how much fuel the engine burns by microseconds — can be influenced by an electromagnetic pulse such as an electrical line or even a stray cell-phone signal. But the tests, the company said, turned up nothing.

NHTSA came to a similar finding. After conducting an extensive technical review of the issue, including interviews with consumers who had complained of unwanted acceleration, NHTSA concluded that "the only defect trend related to vehicle speed control in the subject vehicles involved the potential for accelerator pedals to become trapped near the floor by out-of-position or inappropriate floor-mat installations."

Toyota saw that as vindication. "Six times in the past six years NHTSA has undertaken an exhaustive review of allegations of unintended acceleration on Toyota and Lexus vehicles and six times the agency closed the investigation without finding any electronic engine control system malfunction to be the cause of unintended acceleration," the company noted in a statement.

As part of the recall, the shape of the accelerator pedal on millions of Toyotas will be reconfigured to address the risk of floor-mat entrapment. In addition, Toyota will install a brake-override system that cuts engine power in case of simultaneous application of both the accelerator and brake pedals. The cost of the recall could top $4 billion, according to speculation in Tokyo, which Toyota officials in the U.S. have declined to verify.

David Cole, director of Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., says it is probably too soon to tell how much damage the controversy has done to Toyota's image for quality and reliability. "Every company rests its business on a few pillars. For Toyota, one of the key pillars is quality," Cole says. "How you manage the issue becomes very critical." It certainly didn't help that the accelerator recall also follows by one day the recall of 100,000 Toyota-made pickup trucks because of rust problems. Toyota is rated the highest in dependability among all automakers and has won more quality awards than any other automaker. Its vehicles also routinely top Consumer Reports' recommendations list.

Nevertheless, Toyota, which has seen its sales in the U.S. fall 28%, was planning to spend more than $1 billion on advertising, incentives and "incremental" production, starting in the fourth quarter. "You can't save your way through a recession; you've got to sell," Carter told reporters recently. The question now is whether consumers will still want to buy.