Toyota's latest recall: The end of the story?

Toyota added more than 2 million vehicles today to the nearly eight million recalls in 2009 and 2010 for "sticky pedals" or floor-mat problems that could cause gas pedals to stick.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the recalls marked a formal end to its  inquiry that began after a horrific California crash in August 2009, according to the Associated Press.  Although some auto-safety advocates and plaintiffs' lawyers have continued to question whether loose floor mats and sticking gas pedals were sufficient to explain all complaints about unintended acceleration in Toyotas, their concerns about an electronic-throttle malfunction were largely put to rest earlier this month when NASA and NHTSA released findings from separate probes by space-agency engineers and by NHTSA itself. The AP said:

The Transportation Department said it had reviewed more than 400,000 pages of Toyota documents to determine whether the scope of the company's recalls for pedal entrapment was sufficient.

"As a result of the agency's review, (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) asked Toyota to recall these additional vehicles, and now that the company has done so, our investigation is closed," said NHTSA administrator David Strickland.

The Japanese automaker said the new recalls include:

  • 20,000 2006 and early 2007 Model Year GS 300 and GS 350 All-Wheel Drive vehicles.
  • 372,000 2004 through 2006 and early 2007 RX 330, RX 350, and RX 400h vehicles.
  • 397,000 2004 through 2006 Highlander and Highlander HV vehicles.
  • 603,000 2003 through 2009 4Runners.
  • 17,000 2008 through 2011 Lexus LX 570s.
  • 761,000 2006 through 2010 RAV4s.

Toyota described the voluntary safety recalls in familiar terms - in fact, the 4Runner, Lexus LX 570, and RAV4 recalls were presented as amendments to Toyota's November 2009 recall, "adding three models to address the potential for unsecured or incompatible floor mat entrapment of the accelerator pedal."

In the case of the RXs and Highlanders, Toyota said the recall was "to replace the driver’s side floor carpet cover and its two retention clips.  If the forward retention clip used to secure the floor carpet cover, which is located in front of the center console, is not installed properly, the cover may lean toward the accelerator pedal and interfere with the accelerator pedal arm.  If this occurs, the accelerator pedal may become temporarily stuck in a partially depressed position rather than returning to the idle position."

At last, the end of the story? Probably not. And one skeptic was quick today to poke a hole in the official account - especially to this statement by the AP: "Toyota spokesman Brian Lyons said the company was unaware of any accidents or injuries related to the new recalls."

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said a preliminary review of NHTSA's own data showed at least six deaths and 110 injuries in the first three quarters of 2010 in the 2.2 million vehicles recalled today in crashes linked to "speed control," the category that includes sudden-acceleration cases.

"I am sure Mr. Lyons does not want to say these death and injury claims are due to electronic throttle malfunctions," Ditlow said.

Ditlow says there may still be "the proverbial needle in a haystack" - a rarely expressed flaw in electronics or software causing some fraction of these incidents.  Click here to see his testimony offered today to the Toyota Quality Advisory Panel.

With lawsuits pending, a National Academy of Sciences study due to land, and concerns like Ditlow's lingering, this clearly isn't over.  But if trapped pedals were at least mostly to blame, it may largely fade away.