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Toyota Details Fix for Faulty Pedals

February 1, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Toyota announced Monday it has found a solution to the gas pedal problem that forced the automaker to recall millions of vehicles and stop selling eight popular models in the U.S.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For dealers with lots full of cars, it was welcome news. Toyota announced repair parts to fix accelerator problems should be available by week’s end.

ERNIE BOCH, JR., Boch Toyota: As soon as the customers get the recall notice, we’re going to be open 24 hours a day in service to take care of this problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Toyota diagnosed the problem as excess friction in the gas pedal assembly. It estimated a 30-minute fix should take care of the trouble. In a company video, the head of Toyota’s U.S. division, Jim Lentz, apologized to customers.

JIM LENTZ, president and chief operating officer, Toyota Motor Sales USA: We are truly sorry for letting them down, that nothing is more important to us than their safety and their satisfaction, and that we’re redoubling our efforts to make sure that this can never happen again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In all, 2.3 million Toyotas were recalled on January 21. Five days later, the automaker halted U.S. sales of eight models, roughly two-thirds of its entire product line.

The models included the Toyota Camry, the best-selling car in the country, as well as the RAV4, Corolla, Matrix, Avalon, Highlander, Tundra, and Sequoia vehicles. Toyota officially stopped building those cars and trucks today. But production is expected to resume next week.

Still, the gas pedal recall has spread to Europe and China. That action, plus a separate recall involving pedals stuck in floor mats, affected more than seven million vehicles worldwide.

RICK POPLEY, Tribune Business News: If this continues, other problems surface, they could go from being — you know, having a solid reputation as an auto manufacturer to the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. So, for their sake, and — they better get it right this time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Toyota issued a full-page ad in 20 American newspapers yesterday, trying to reassure consumers. The Wall Street Journal reported today, the recall and sales stoppages will cost Toyota an estimated $1 billion.

In the meantime, the company is facing consumer lawsuits, claiming the real p

roblem is Toyota’s electronic throttle system, and not the gas pedals. Toyota denies that. At least two congressional committees also plan to take up the issue at hearings this month.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And for more on this story, we are joined again by Micheline Maynard, senior business correspondent at The New York Times and author of the book “The Selling of the American Economy.”

Micki Maynard, thank you again for being with us.

MICHELINE MAYNARD, The New York Times: My pleasure, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: First of all, Toyota is saying they are sending these parts out to dealers in the next few days. That part is going to fix the problem. Tell us what the part is. How is it going to fix it?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Well, the part is just a little piece of stainless steel. And Toyota describes the problem this way: that there are two pieces of this accelerator pedal assembly just above where the car is, and the two pieces can sort of stick together the way two pieces of glass can stick together if you put a little bit of water on it.

And they say that, over time, that’s what is causing these pedals to stick sort of halfway down or halfway up. And drivers aren’t able to get the car to slow down, essentially. So, they are going to put in this little piece of metal. And they hope that — they say that that is the fix that they are looking for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They hope. I mean, how confident are they that this is it?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: You know, this is an interesting question, because I — full disclosure, I happen to own a Toyota Prius.

And the Prius is not one of the vehicles involved in this, although it was involved in the floor mat recall. My Prius has a part that is made by Denso, which is a big Japanese part supplier. And they actually are 24 percent owned by Toyota. And the Denso part is a little bit different than the part that was made in Indiana by a company, by CTS.

CTS uses some plastic pieces involved in this pedal assembly. The Denso part uses a bolt. And, so, you could say, why did the American cars get the plastic pieces and why did the Japanese cars get this bolt? And I really don’t know the answer.

But the fact is that the Denso parts are not having this problem, and the parts that are prescribed for the American cars are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Toyota is saying they are confident that this is it?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: They are saying that they are confident that this is it. And they say that they under — for their understanding, what they call the embedding of these floor mats in the pedals, taking out the floor mats and replacing those pedals will fix that problem, and putting this little shim, I guess you could call it, into these pedals will fix that problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how long are they — do they say this is going to take to get to all the cars?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: It takes about a half-an-hour per car.

And here’s the situation. They have millions of people who have these cars that have been recalled. So, if those folks choose to go to a dealership, they have said that those people will be served first.

At the same time, they have to modify the cars that are in showrooms that they can’t sell, because, under American law, if you have something that has a known defect, you have to stop selling it. So, those have to be fixed as well.

And people are saying that it could take months for this all to be finished. But one of the big unknowns is whether owners will take all of their cars in, and Toyota said they are going to make a real effort to make sure people are notified, and that they get their cars in to be repaired.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, separately, Micki Maynard, we know there are lawsuits out there by individuals who say it is the electronics, throttle system, that is a problem. But what is Toyota saying about that?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Well, Toyota is denying that there is any problem with the electronics on the car and that the electronic throttle controls are involved.

And this is kind of an important point, because, you know, people who used to be able to fix their cars themselves. They used to be able to pop the hood and fix almost anything on a car. And, over the last 10 or 15 years, we have gone too much more software controls on a car.

It’s kind of, if you think about an Airbus jet, it’s controlled by a fly-by-wire system. It’s kind of the same thing on an automobile. You’re sending these electronic signals to the car to go faster, go slower, brake the car. So, in this case, Toyota is saying it is not the throttles. There are 11 class-action suits that have been filed and several attorneys who say that: We believe it is the throttle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I was on the phone call today that Toyota had with reporters. I know you were on that call. I heard you ask a question.

Several of the questions were about the delay between when these problems cropped up and when Toyota acted to do something about them. How did you think they dealt with those questions?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: I still think there are questions, Judy, about the timeline in this.

And one of the things I find intriguing is the fact that, in 2007, the Tundra, their big pickup truck, was recalled for an accelerator-related issue. Toyota said that they had fixed them sort of in-flight. They fixed them during production, and they went on.

And the Tundra from 2007 is one of the vehicles that has been involved in this recall. So, I think Toyota is going to continue to face questions. I think they’re all hoping — and certainly their engineers tell them — that this fix works. And, if it works and there are no more cases, then they have nothing to worry about.

But I have talked to lawyers today who have said, if this doesn’t work, they’re in big trouble.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, are people saying that they underestimated the severity, or — or what?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: That’s a good question, because, especially as a Toyota owner, you know, when I heard about the floor mat recall, I was very concerned myself and immediately took out my floor mats, you know, got the recall notice that said, you have taken out your floor mats, we will give you a new pedal, everything will be fine.

And then a few months later came this recall. And I can’t help but wonder if, possibly, they’re all a related situation, and maybe just taking out the floor mats isn’t the solution to all of this. I’m not an engineer. You know, I have to believe what the Toyota people say.

But I know there are many owners out there, many Americans, who bought Toyotas who are concerned about the situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last week, the secretary of transportation said that the federal government had to ask Toyota to recall these cars. Toyota today was saying, no, we did it voluntarily.

How do you — how are people seeing that discrepancy?

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Well, you know, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been quite activist since he came into office.

A few months ago, he ordered that the — that people could no longer — sit on an airplane no longer than three hours before the airline had to go back to the gate. That was one thing that the airline industry has been fighting.

He’s been very vocal in this Toyota situation, very friendly to Toyota. He gives them a lot of credit for what they have done. But he essentially said, they stopped building and selling the cars because we asked them to.

Toyota says it was voluntary. You know, I can see the politics in this situation. And I think it’s just fascinating to see a transportation secretary take on a major carmaker.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Micheline Maynard of The New York Times, thank you.

MICHELINE MAYNARD: Thank you, Judy.