On September 29, 2009, Toyota announced the recall of several models of Toyota and Lexus vehicles in connection with 2000 documented incidents of unintended acceleration that resulted in as many as 19 deaths. Models covered by the recall include 2007-2010 model year Toyota Camrys, 2004-2009 Toyota Prius, 2005-2010 Toyota Avalons, 2005-2010 Tacomas, 2007-2010 Toyota Tundras, 2007-2010 Lexus ES 350s 2006-2010 Lexus IS 250s and 2006-2010 IS 350s.
The unintended acceleration problem, which has been investigated by the NHTSA at least 8 times since 2003, drew widespread attention following a widely publicized accident on a San Diego highway that killed a California Highway Patrol Officer, his wife, daughter and another family member. The vehicle involved in that accident was a 2009 Lexus ES 350. In that incident, the NHTSA found that the floor mat in the vehicle was an all-weather mat intended for use in a Lexus sport utility vehicle, as opposed to a sedan such as the ES 350. The agency also found that the design of the gas pedal may have enhanced the risk because it would be obstructed by the floor mat.
The September 29, 2009 recall involves 3.8 million vehicles and is the largest recall in Toyota’s history. Toyota and the NHTSA have not agreed upon the cause of the unintended acceleration, nor the means of fixing the defect. Toyota has attempted to cast the problem as a floor mat problem only. For example, the recall notices sent out as part of the recall stated only that owners should remove the drivers’ floor mat. Toyota then issued a statement in which it said that its recall letter “confirms that no defect exists in vehicles in which the driver’s floor mat is compatible with the vehicle and properly secured.”
On November 4, 2009, the NHTSA quickly followed Toyota’s statement with its own statement that the recalled vehicles have an “underlying defect” that involves the design of the accelerator pedal and the driver’s foot well. The NHTSA further stated that “[s]afety is the No. 1 priority for NHTSA and this is why officials are working with Toyota to find the right way to fix this very dangerous problem. This matter is not closed until Toyota has effectively addressed the defect by providing a suitable vehicle-based solution.” In response to the NHTSA statement, Toyota said it was “never our intention to mislead or provide inaccurate information.”
The statement added that it was still developing “vehicle-based” remedies to prevent incidents of unintended acceleration. In October, 2009, a Toyota spokesman stated that these “vehicle-based” remedies might include moving the gas pedals or changing engine control software. Some experts believe that, in the end, Toyota will replace the gas pedals on the recalled vehicles.