Special Coverage

Toyota's Safety Crisis

Contrite Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. executives vouch for the effectiveness of a retrofit designed to prevent unintended acceleration in recalled vehicles.

“We are truly sorry for what has happened; we are sorry for what we’ve put our customers through,” Jim Lentz, president and chief operating officer, says today.

Fresh off a high-profile appearance on NBC’s “The Today Show,” Lentz says a fix for 2.3 million Toyota-brand vehicles is on its way to dealers. The vehicles are subject to a problem that causes sticky accelerators.

The fix, a reinforcement bar that will reduce excess friction, is set to arrive late Tuesday or on Wednesday at Toyota dealerships in the U.S. Some dealers will remain open 24 hours to handle the repairs, and Toyota will persist in its attempt to contact affected customers until it has 100% compliance.

Lentz say he and other top Toyota management members will visit dealerships to oversee the process. He expects the pedal-fix at dealers to take 30 minutes but says that time period should lessen as technicians become more proficient.

The reinforcement bar is being manufactured for Toyota by an unnamed supplier, Lentz says, not CTS Corp. of Elkhart, IN, the original maker of the faulty component. CTS is producing redesigned pedals that will go into new vehicles.

“We’re very confident the installation of a reinforcement bar for customers is as successful a repair as it would be replacing the pedal,” says Bob Waltz, vice president-product quality and service support-TMSUSA.

He says both the reinforcement bar and the replacement pedal have undergone rigorous testing by Toyota engineers.

Lentz says Toyota will need to further investigate whether its engineers dropped the ball on predicting instances of sticky pedals, a difficult problem to discover and replicate. The problem occurs when humidity causes a component to become misshapen.

Lentz says Toyota became aware of three stuck pedal cases in October. The pedals stayed open at 15% throttle.

Toyota engineers have been working on a remedy since that time, Lentz says, rejecting allegations the auto maker moved too slowly on the matter. “It’s really a very broad issue,” he says.

Against this backdrop, Toyota is the focus of increasingly critical media attention stemming also from last year’s recall of 4.3 million vehicles. The problem: ill-fitting floor mats that pinned accelerator pedals to the floor.

Toyota says the floor mat issue is separate from the sticky pedal problem. But some vehicles are subject to both recalls.

Widespread media reports indicate the auto maker has been the subject of some 2,000 complaints about unintended acceleration.

Lentz and Waltz both say the pedal fix, as well as a fix to shave down pedals implicated in the floor-mat recall, should remove the threat of a crash. However, some Toyota owners also allege problems with their car’s electronic throttle-control unit.

“Our vehicles go through extensive electro-magnetic radiation testing,” Waltz says. “We have never been able to get our systems to fail” on any tests Toyota has performed.

As a failsafe, “many redundancies” are built into the system, he adds.

Asked why Toyota waited five days between the Jan. 21 pedal recall and the Jan. 26 announcement to stop sales, Lentz says the auto maker was allowed by the government to take the time required to make its dealers aware of the situation.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. last week made clear Toyota is compelled by law to stop sales of the eight models implicated in the sticky-pedal recall.

Lentz says Toyota will restart production Feb. 8 at five plants shut down this week. The plants are Princeton, IN; Georgetown, KY; San Antonio; Cambridge, ON, Canada; and Lafayette, IN.

The eight models implicated in last week’s recall will be equipped with the redesigned pedals when production restarts.

Lentz says it is too early to tell how much the recall will cost Toyota, whether CTS will be bearing any of the cost of the recall, or the effect it will have on Toyota’s sales and reputation.

“This is embarrassing for us to have this kind of recall situation,” Lentz says. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean we have lost our edge on quality.”

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com