Last month, Toyota and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a safety advisory alerting the owners of 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles to remove the driver’s side floor mats in their cars. The mats, Toyota said, could slide forward and interfere with the gas pedal, whose design allowed it to be easily jammed, causing a dangerous Unintended Acceleration situation. The recall is the largest ever for Toyota and the fifth largest recall of a consumer product in the United States.

Toyota formally notified the NHTSA of the recall in a letter on October 5. Owners of the recalled vehicles, which include eight Toyota models manufactured in the last six years, are being notified by first-class mail in a mailing that was sent out on Friday, October 30th.

This first mailing will alert owners to the potential dangers posed by the floor mats but will not announce a fix. When Toyota decides on a solution, it will contact owners about the availability of a free remedy in a second mailing.

Some early reports indicated that rather than focusing on the floor mats, Toyota was researching on-vehicle countermeasures such as a “smart pedal” that would tell the vehicle to ignore the gas pedal if the brakes were applied simultaneously. Such a measure, which is standard in most German-made vehicles and Chryslers, would enable drivers to regain control of their vehicles easily and instantly despite the cause of unintended acceleration.

However, retrofitting 3.8 million vehicles with smart pedal technology would be extremely costly.  A modification to the pedal in the affected vehicles would cost as much as $440 million, according to a Tokyo Shimbun report cited by Reuters.

A recall involving redesigned floor mats, on the other hand, would cost about $100 million. New reports say that the latest Toyota recall will indeed be a floor mat fix of some kind.

Toyota’s largest recall comes during its toughest financial time. The company expects to lose $4.7 billion for the year ending March 31 — its second consecutive annual loss. The economic downturn and a poor exchange rate are obvious culprits, but according to Toyota President Akio Toyoda, the troubles run even deeper.

“Toyota has become too big and distant from its customers,” President Akio Toyoda, he told journalists in Tokyo last month. “We are grasping for salvation,” he added, after apologizing for an accident that occurred in San Diego last August, which investigators say was caused when a floor mat jammed the accelerator pedal in a Lexus ES 350. The horrific accident claimed the lives of a California Highway Patrol officer and three of his family members, finally prompting the massive recall.

Until Toyota develops a fix, owners of the recalled vehicles should remove their driver’s side floor mats immediately. “This is an urgent matter,” transportation secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement last month. “For everyone’s sake, we strongly urge owners of these vehicles to remove mats or other obstacles that could lead to unintended acceleration.”

The recall encompasses the following Toyota and Lexus models: 2007 – 2010 Camry; 2005 – 2010 Avalon; 2004 – 2009 Prius; 2005 – 2010 Tacoma; 2007 – 2010 Tundra; 2007 – 2010 Lexus ES 350; and 2006 – 2010 Lexus IS 250 and 2006 – 2010 Lexus IS 350.

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