Toyota knew about potential floor mat problems, which could cause the gas pedal in certain Toyota and Lexus automobiles to get stuck and result in a serious accident, more than two and a half years before issuing a recall last week for 3.8 million vehicles.
According to a report in the New York Times, officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) began investigating potential problems with Toyota and Lexus floor mats as early as March 2007, after receiving complaints from Lexus ES 350 owners that their vehicles were suddenly accelerating out of control. Although a limited recall was issue for all-weather floor mats on certain Lexus ES 350 and Toyota Camry vehicles, millions of other vehicles could be impacted by defectively designed floor mats and gas pedals.
Following a fatal auto accident in August 2009, where an off-duty California state trooper and three family members were killed while driving a Lexus ES 350 on loan from a local dealership, NHTSA officials met with Toyota to discuss concerns about continuing complaints of uncontrollable acceleration in Toyota and Lexus vehicles.
Last week, a Toyota and Lexus recall was issued for more than 3.8 million vehicles that may experience problems with the floor mats jamming the accelerator, including 2004-2009 Toyota Prius, 2005-2010 Toyota Avalon, 2005-2010 Toyota Tacoma, 2007-2010 Toyota Camry, 2007-2010 Toyota Tundra, 2006-2010 Lexus IS 250 and IS 350, and 2007-2010 Lexus ES 350 models.
Toyota is now telling owners to immediately remove the driver’s side floor mats until a permanent fix can be found.
NHTSA officials said last week that they needed time to develop sound science and analyze the problem before they could issue a warning. Since 2007, NHTSA researchers have been testing Toyota and Lexus vehicles for the accelerator problem at a research facility in Ohio, ruling out electromagnetic and electronic interference. The floor mat problems seem to lie solely with the thickness of the anchored floor mats.
In addition to causing uncontrolled acceleration, when the gas pedal was jammed under the mat it reduced the effectiveness of the vacuum power assisted brakes, according to researchers. The reduced effectiveness of the brakes increased stopping distance from 200 feet to more than 1,000 feet, and increased the amount of force required to fully apply the brakes from 30 pounds to 150 pounds.
NHTSA regulators also noted that drivers of Lexus vehicles were not informed in earlier manuals that the car’s keyless start button ignition system could be shut off in an emergency by holding down the start button for three seconds. It also said that warnings in the manuals about proper use of the floor mats were in small print that could easily be missed.
In the aftermath of the massive recall, Toyota president Akio Toyoda held a press conference announcing that the company would experience its second straight annual loss, and saying that the company was in trouble unless it changed how it did business.
Toyoda, grandson of the company’s founder, Kiichiro Toyoda, said the company was “grasping for salvation” after the recent recession diminished demand for new cars, and was close to “capitulation to irrelevance or death” if it did not alter its approach to business, and regain consumer confidence.
“We have to listen to our customers and make better cars,” Toyoda said during the press conference.
In addition to the recall, the company faces serious allegations that officials withheld safety studies and other evidence in Toyota rollover lawsuits in recent years. The allegations come from a former Toyota attorney, Demitrios Biller, who is suing the company for forcing him out.
Biller’s claims that Toyota hid the results of crashworthiness tests and told engineers to lie on the stand, leading to the re-opening of several product liability lawsuits against Toyota. Last week, U.S. District Judge John T. Ward issued a temporary restraining order to prevent Toyota from destroying any evidence that may be related to the cases, even those records which would be destroyed normally under generally accepted company file retention policies.