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The plastics angle in Toyota's $1.2 billion fine

By: Don Loepp

March 19, 2014

Today the Justice Department announced that Toyota Motor Corp. will pay a record $1.2 billion settlement to resolve a criminal probe into safety issues that caused cars to accelerate even as drivers tried to slow them down. Buried in the news: some details on a plastic part that created part of the problem.

The acceleration problem first surfaced in 2007, and it was traced to two problems — faulty floor mats, and a problem with the accelerator pedal that could cause it to stick.

Our 2010 coverage looked at the supplier of the accelerator-pedal assemblies ("Recall focus turns to CTS"), and noted that Toyota said problems occurred as parts in the assembly wore over time.

But it wasn't clear at the time if a plastic part was a fault.

"Toyota's repair directions do not specify whether metal or plastic parts are at issue," our story said.

Well, that's no longer a mystery.

The Justice Department's March 19 announcement called the problem "sticky pedal," and put the blame on "a plastic material inside the pedals that could cause the accelerator pedal to become mechanically stuck in a partially depressed position. The pedals incorporating this plastic were installed in, among other models, the Camry, the Matrix, the Corolla, and the Avalon sold in the United States."

According to the Justice Department, the sticky pedal problem surfaced in Europe in 2008, and Toyota first reacted by changing the design "to substitute the plastic used in the affected pedal models with another material and to change the length of the friction lever in the pedal."

But then, when the floor-mat-related acceleration problems surfaced, Toyota suspended the pedal design changes — "to prevent NHTSA [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] from learning about the sticky pedal problem."

In other words, Toyota decided to deal with the floor mat issue, and sweep the sticky plastic problem, well, under the mat. The problem pedals "... were still on the road and still, in fact, being installed in newly-produced vehicles," the Justice Department says.Perhaps this is all ancient history, but it does help to fill in some details in a story that we expected had a plastics angle back in 2010, but at the time we didn't know all the details.And it's instructive to see how the government dealt with this issue, especially considering that General Motors now faces a similar issue. (Automotive News:  "Toyota's $1.2 billion settlement may be model for U.S. probe into GM").