Toyota recall raises questions about costs, design changes

Toyota's (TM) recall of 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus models is the Japanese car maker's largest U.S. recall and ranks among the top 10 of all U.S. vehicle recalls. The recall addresses stuck accelerators caused by jammed floor mats. Since 2004, at least 30 crashes and 20 injuries involving uncontrolled acceleration in Toyota vehicles have been reported to federal officials. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration warned owners to remove the floor mats and not to install new ones.

But whether it will cost Toyota Motor Co. dearly or lead to mandated design changes of mats or other components is still unknown. The problem is a pretty simple fix that won't likely exact a huge toll on Toyota's bottom line, an analyst told the Associated Press. "It's making big headlines because of the big numbers, but in terms of the company's profits, it is not likely to have a big impact," said Mamoru Katou, an auto analyst with Tokai Tokyo Research.
Still, countered Jack Nerad, executive market analyst at Kelley Blue Book's, "there are significant costs involved when you're talking about 3.8 million vehicles." Further, he said federal safety officials could impose new rule-making to address any safety issues that may be uncovered in the recall. A likely scenario is that new regulations will require modification of the design of accelerator pedals that would prevent interference from floor mats.

What complicates this particular recall, Nerad said, are the push-button start mechanisms installed on some of the recalled models, which include: 2007-10 Camry, 2005-10 Avalon, 2004-09 Prius, 2005-10 Tacoma, 2007-10 Tundra, 2007-10 Lexus ES 350, and 2006-10 Lexus IS 250 and IS 350.

In vehicles with push-button start, the driver is required to depress the button for three seconds to either start or stop the engine. "It's really the three seconds that I think is the problem," Nerad said. Should the driver hit the start/stop button and the racing motor doesn't immediately die, it only leads to more panic."

It's possible such a situation played a factor in the Aug. 28 crash that killed a California Highway Patrol officer and three family members who were riding in a rented Lexus ES 350. The speeding car, reported to have hit speeds of 120 mph, went over an embankment and caught fire.

That incident led Toyota to order dealers to inspect the floor mats of all new models. The manufacturer has joined the NHTSA in advising drivers to remove the mats until a permanent fix is found. But those actions may not stop further accidents from happening.

That's because one unfortunate outcome of many recalls is that vehicle owners simply don't respond. "They either don't get the message or they just don't care," Nerad said. But this recall is potentially life-threatening. "It's one they should really pay attention to."
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