DETROIT (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp 7203.T will fix the accelerator pedals in 4 million cars and trucks to address a safety issue linked to bursts of sudden acceleration and deadly accidents, the company and the U.S. government said on Wednesday.
The action, which represents the largest-ever U.S. safety recall by the Japanese automaker, aims to address the risk that floor mats in the vehicles can come loose and trap the accelerator pedal on some of Toyota’s most popular models including the Camry and hybrid Prius.
Toyota had initially urged owners to remove floor mats in affected vehicles sold over the last six years.
But under the more sweeping and costly recall detailed on Wednesday, Toyota said it would reconfigure and replace accelerator pedals and take other steps after an investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Toyota said it would install a new brake override system on five models starting next year that will cut power to the engine when the brake pedal is applied even if the accelerator is also engaged.
On Camry and Avalon and Lexus ES350 models, the automaker will also reshape the floor of the vehicle to create more space under the accelerator pedal.
The massive recall represents a threat to Toyota’s image for safety at a time when the automaker is struggling to return to profitability after being hit by an industry-wide sales slump and missteps tied to its own rapid expansion.
Earlier this month, the NHTSA rebuked Toyota for issuing “inaccurate and misleading information” after the automaker said “no defect exists” in cases where the floor mat was properly installed.
In fact, NHTSA said, it had concluded that the Toyota models covered by the recall had a “very serious defect” and simply replacing or removing the floor mats would not be enough.
“Toyota’s reputation remains strong and consumers remain loyal, but data from independent studies increasingly show Toyota’s quality is slipping,” said IHS Global Insight analyst Aaron Bragman.
“Toyota had the aim of becoming General Motors for many years, and now it has many of the same problems that GM had, like overcapacity and quality issues,” he said.
The most immediate catalyst for the Toyota safety action was a crash that killed four people outside San Diego in August. In that incident, an off-duty California state trooper and three members of his family were killed in a crash when the Lexus ES350 he was driving accelerated out of control.
NHTSA said it had received reports of 100 incidents, including 17 crashes and five fatalities, possibly linked to floor mats and accelerator pedals.
Other estimates of the number of incidents of sudden acceleration in Toyota vehicles run higher.
ABC News said earlier this month that it had found reports of 16 deaths and more than 200 accidents linked to sudden acceleration.
The Los Angeles Times reported earlier this month that it had found more than 1,000 instances of sudden acceleration reported by Toyota owners. The newspaper said its review of safety records concluded that unintended acceleration may have contributed to 19 fatalities in Lexus and Toyota vehicles.
Toyota said that starting in January drivers who bring their vehicles to Toyota dealerships will have their accelerator pedals cut from the bottom to create more space between the pedal and the floor mat
From April, Toyota will have redesigned and shortened replacement accelerator pedals available at dealerships, said Toyota spokesman Irv Miller.
The company will also replace the floor mats in vehicles covered by the recall.
The recall covers Camry and Avalon sedans, the Prius and the Tacoma and Tundra pickup trucks. Three Lexus models -- the ES350, IS250 and IS350 -- are also included.
Miller said the automaker has not estimated the cost of the safety action.
Toyota’s investigators have ruled out problems with the electronic controls in the affected vehicles as a cause in the episodes of sudden acceleration, Miller said.
“We are very, very confident that we have addressed this issue,” said Miller.
The recall is the second in two days for Toyota. On Tuesday, the company said it would recall about 110,000 older model Tundra pickup trucks due to corrosion problems.
Toyota said owners with questions on the recall could find more information at its websites www.toyota.com and www.lexus.com.
Additional reporting by Soyoung Kim and Kevin Krolicki in Detroit and John Crawley in Washington; Editing by Maureen Bavdek and Steve Orlofsky
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