WASHINGTON — Toyota Motor Corp. said Wednesday it will replace gas pedals on about 4 million vehicles in the United States because they can get stuck in the floor mats, another blow to the reputation of the world's largest automaker.
Toyota said dealers will offer to shorten the length of the gas pedals by three-fourths of an inch beginning in January as a stopgap measure while the company develops replacement pedals. New pedals will be installed by dealers on a rolling basis beginning in April, and some vehicles will get a brake override system as a precaution.
Toyota announced a massive recall in late September and told owners to remove the driver's side floor mats to keep the gas pedal from becoming jammed and causing unintended acceleration.
Popular vehicles such as the midsize Camry, the top-selling car in America, and the Prius, the best-selling gas-electric hybrid, are among those to be fixed. The recall also includes the luxury Lexus ES350, the vehicle involved in a fiery fatal accident in California that focused public attention on the danger.
Spokesman Irv Miller said Toyota is "very, very confident that we have addressed this issue" with the new fix. Toyota has no reason to believe that there are problems with the cars' electronic control systems, he said.
Toyota officials said the floor mats are only sold in the U.S. and the recall would be limited to North America.
Toyota declined to provide a cost estimate for the fix, but analysts said it would be extremely expensive because of the repairs involved and the manufacturing of new pedals. Toyota also said it would provide newly designed replacement floor mats.
The recall is another blemish for Toyota, which developed a sterling reputation for quality in the U.S. by selling reliable family vehicles but faced challenges as it rapidly expanded. While recalls do not always indicate diminished reliability, Toyota executives have expressed concern about large numbers of recalls and pushed for improved quality controls.
In a separate action, Toyota announced Tuesday that it would recall 110,000 Tundra trucks from the 2000-03 model years to address excessive frame rust.
"Their reputation has taken a hit because the actual quality has taken a hit," said Aaron Bragman, an automotive analyst for the consulting firm IHS Global Insight. "That's absolutely critical for Toyota to get that fixed because that's the central pillar that they've built their business on."
The gas pedal recall is Toyota's largest in the U.S. and the sixth-largest in the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It involves 3.8 million vehicles, including the 2007-10 Camry, 2005-10 Avalon, 2004-09 Prius, 2005-10 Tacoma, 2007-10 Tundra, 2007-10 Lexus ES350 and 2006-10 Lexus IS250/350.
The safety administration said 4.26 million vehicles would be covered, including new cars and trucks sold since September and others manufactured since the recall was announced.
It was prompted by a high-speed crash in August involving a 2009 Lexus ES350 that killed a California Highway Patrol officer and three members of his family near San Diego. The Lexus hit speeds exceeding 120 mph, struck a sport utility vehicle, launched off an embankment, rolled several times and burst into flames. In a frantic 911 call, a family member told emergency responders that the accelerator was stuck and the driver couldn't stop.
Safety administration investigators determined that a rubber all-weather floor mat found in the wreckage was slightly longer than the mat that belonged in the vehicle, and could have snared or covered the accelerator pedal.
The government has attributed at least five deaths and two injuries to floor mat-related unintended acceleration in the Toyota vehicles and has received reports of more than 100 other incidents. A Massachusetts-based safety consultant who has investigated the Toyota cases, however, has found more than 2,000 incidents involving 16 deaths and 243 injuries potentially tied to Toyota gas pedals.
To fix the problem, Toyota and the government said dealers will shorten the length of the accelerator pedal and in some cases remove foam from beneath the carpeting near the pedal to increase space between the pedal and floor. Owners of the ES350, Camry and Avalon will get first notification because the vehicles are believed to be at highest risk.
Toyota also plans to install a brake override system on the Camry, Avalon and Lexus ES350, IS350 and IS250 models, Toyota and the safety administration said. The brake override system will ensure the vehicle will stop if the brake and the gas pedal are applied simultaneously.
Toyota plans to make the override system standard equipment on new Toyota and Lexus models by the end of 2010.
The automaker and government regulators have been discussing a potential fix for several weeks. Toyota urged owners in September to remove driver's side floor mats until the company found a fix. The automaker said unhooked floor mats or replacement mats stacked atop the originals could lead to stuck accelerators.
In November, Toyota issued a statement saying the safety administration had confirmed "that no defect exists in vehicles in which the driver's floor mat is compatible with the vehicle and properly secured."
But in a rare rebuke, the safety administration accused Toyota of releasing misleading information about the recall, saying removing the mats did not "correct the underlying defect." Toyota said it was not the company's intention to mislead anyone.
For more information, owners can contact Toyota at 800-331-4331 or the safety administration's hot line at 888-327-4236.