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Toyota apologizes, says it will start fixing cars shortly

Jim Lentz, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales, speaks on "The Today Show" in New York.
Jim Lentz, president and chief operating officer of Toyota Motor Sales, speaks on "The Today Show" in New York.
Heidi Gutman, Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Toyota apologized to its customers Monday and said a piece of steel about the size of a postage stamp will fix the gas pedal problem that led to the recall of millions of cars. Repairs will take about a half-hour and will start in a matter of days, the company said.

Toyota insisted the solution, rolled out six days after it temporarily stopped selling some of its most popular models, had been through rigorous testing and would solve the problem for the life of the car.

After a week in which Toyota drivers said they were worried about the safety of their cars and dealers were frustrated by a lack of information, Toyota said it would work to regain the trust of its customers.

"I know that we have let you down," Jim Lentz, president of Toyota Motor Sales USA, said in a video address.

The repair involves installing a steel shim a couple of millimeters thick in the pedal assembly, behind the top of the gas pedal, to eliminate the excess friction between two pieces of the accelerator mechanism. In rare cases, Toyota says, that friction can cause the pedal to become stuck in the depressed position.

Toyota said car owners would be notified by mail and told to set up appointments with their dealers. It said cars already on the road would get priority over those on the lot.

The recall covered 4.2 million cars worldwide and 2.3 million in the United States, including some of Toyota's best-selling models, such as the Camry and Corolla. It has recalled millions more because of floor mats that can catch the gas pedal.

Jeffrey Liker, a University of Michigan engineering professor who has studied Toyota for 25 years, said he believed the fix would work, citing the automaker's reputation for careful testing and engineering.

"They are under the gun. They aren't playing any games," he said.

Toyota would not give an estimated cost for the repair work. It estimated repairing all the recalled cars would take months. It said some dealers were planning to stay open around the clock to make the repairs once parts arrive. Parts were expected to begin arriving late Tuesday and Wednesday.

Earl Stewart, who owns a Toyota dealership in North Palm Beach, Fla., and had been critical of delays in getting repair parts to dealers, said he was happy with the fix. He said he was reassured that it had been tested by independent engineers, not just Toyota's.

"You never say you're absolutely sure about anything, but I feel that this is probably the answer," he said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it had "no reason to challenge this remedy." Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last week the government had urged Toyota to issue the recall and suspend production and told reporters Monday that Toyota had "done the right thing."

Etienne Plas, a spokesman for Toyota Motors Europe in Brussels, said the carmaker would implement the same remedy for faulty gas pedals in Europe, but he did not know when.

Besides millions of dollars a day in lost sales, the recall posed a public-relations challenge to Toyota, which for decades has enjoyed a loyal customer base and a reputation for quality.

It took out full-page newspaper ads declaring the episode a pause "to put you first," and on Monday it sent Lentz to morning news shows to express confidence in the fix.

"This is embarrassing for us to have ... this kind of recall situation," Lentz told reporters. "But it doesn't necessarily mean that we have lost our edge on quality. But we do have to be vigilant. We have to redouble our efforts to make sure this doesn't happen again."

That was not enough for Dennis Dukes of Stony Point, N.C., and his wife, who said they wouldn't drive their 2010 Camry again, even with the repair. His wife ran into the back of a truck in August in their first Camry, a crash Dukes said happened after she hit the brakes and the car kept going.

"I am absolutely not going to drive that vehicle again," Dukes said. "Whether it fixes the Camry or not, the damage has been done. It is not going to fix things mentally for us."

Toyota says it will have a failsafe system in most of its models by the end of this year and all models by the end of 2011, so that the accelerator goes to idle if the brake is pressed at the same time.

Jake Fisher, senior automotive engineer for Consumer Reports, criticized Toyota for having too few models with mechanisms that can override a stuck accelerator. Drivers of Cadillac and Infiniti cars, for example, can shut off the engine by pushing the start button more than once. Toyota drivers must hold it down for three seconds.

Consumer Reports recommends shifting the car into neutral if the accelerator gets stuck, braking and then steering to the side of the road.

Another safety expert, Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, said Toyota may be rushing out a fix without considering other potential sources of the problem, such as the electronics of the pedal system.

"Toyota is betting their reputation that this is the last and latest fix that will correct the problem," he said. "It if doesn't, they are in a world of trouble."

Toyota said it was confident the problem was mechanical.

"Our vehicles go through extensive electromagnetic radiation testing," said Robert Waltz, Toyota's vice president of product quality. "And we have never been able to get our systems to fail through any of the tests that have been done on them."

The company plans to restart production Feb. 8 on models covered by the recall — the Camry, Corolla, Avalon and Highlander cars, the Matrix hatchback, the Tundra pickup, the RAV4 crossover and the Sequoia SUV.

Lentz said the decision to stop selling the affected vehicles would hurt January sales, but he said the impact over the long term is unclear.

Toyota shareholders appeared pleased. The company's stock, which took a hit last week, was up nearly 4 percent Monday. The broader market was up 1.4 percent.

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