Toyota Motor Corp on Monday began shipping parts to fix faulty accelerators in nearly 4.5 million vehicles in North America and Europe, and said it would restart North American production on February 8 after an unprecedented shutdown prompted by the problem.
The moves by Toyota marked the most detail the automaker has provided on its plans to address a safety issue that threatens its finances and reputation, and dented its U.S. sales for January.
Lawsuits announced on Monday claimed Toyota had ignored signs of trouble with some of its top-selling models. The suits are part of what is expected to be a wave of litigation against the automaker for claims ranging from losses on car resale values to injury and death.
Analysts and dealers said it would take months for the automaker to fix all of the vehicles at risk of having an accelerator pedal stick in the open position.
We know what's causing the sticking accelerator pedals, and we know what we have to do to fix it, said Jim Lentz, president of Toyota's U.S. sales subsidiary.
We deeply regret the concern that our recalls have caused for our customers, and we are doing everything we can -- as fast as we can -- to make things right.
Toyota's U.S. dealers said they would begin training on Tuesday on how to repair vehicles under recall by inserting a metal plate designed to keep the pedal from sticking.
In Canada, Toyota said it would begin notifying owners of 270,000 vehicles with the faulty accelerator pedal to begin coming in for the repair, expected to take less than an hour.
Toyota also said it would begin shipping the needed replacement part to fix an estimated 1.8 million vehicles in Europe this week.
The first round of repairs is expected to cost Toyota at least $250 million in warranty fees in the United States alone. Some Toyota dealerships said they would stay open around the clock to speed customer repairs or hire more mechanics to fix cars overnight.
Criticism is mounting that Toyota moved too slowly to address cases of unintended and dangerous acceleration. The claims have tarnished Toyota's reputation for quality, one of the factors behind Toyota's rise to overtake General Motors Co as the world's largest automaker.
A growing number of lawsuits claim that Toyota should have acted earlier to address the problems, which resulted in a suspension of sales of its most popular models last week, including the top-selling Camry.
Toyota has long known about the defect with their throttle control, and has done too little, too late to correct it, said Robert Hilliard, a Texas lawyer who has filed a proposed class-action lawsuit in Texas.
Much like their cars, this problem is speeding out of control and Toyota is having a hard time slamming on the brakes, he said.
Hilliard represents Albert Pena, who says his 2008 Toyota Avalon crashed last month when the car unexpectedly accelerated through a stop sign.
A Canadian lawsuit against Toyota announced on Monday also named the automaker's supplier, CTS Corp.
CTS says it built the pedals to Toyota's specifications and has said it does not expect any liability from the recall.
TALLYING THE DAMAGE
The CTS-supplied accelerator pedal -- a $15 part -- now stands at the center of a global crisis that has cost Toyota billions of dollars in market value.
Lentz said it was too early to estimate how much the safety problem and related issues would cost. I don't have any numbers on exactly how many dollars it is going to take, he told Reuters Insider in an interview.
Edmunds.com, an online automotive research site, expects Toyota's U.S. sales in January to fall 12 percent, giving it a market share of just under 15 percent, near a four-year low.
Other analysts expect Toyota to post a deeper drop in sales in weeks ahead as rivals led by GM, Ford Motor Co and Hyundai Motor Co attempt to profit from the automaker's missteps.
At Courtesy Chevrolet in central Phoenix, general manager Scott Gruwell said the dealership had seen three or four sales over the past weekend from Toyota owners who had switched to buy a GM product like the Malibu.
Are we out there banging our pots and pans talking about this problem? Absolutely not, but if folks are coming in wanting to trade their Toyota, we'll do our best to get them out of that Toyota and into a Chevrolet, Gruwell said.
At one point Toyota could do no wrong, now there's all these quality concerns that people have. So this is a long term issue, he said.
Anton Semprivivo, general manager of Metro Honda in Jersey City, New Jersey, said the number of consumers giving up on Toyota appeared to be limited.
We have not seen a rush to our Honda stores, he said. We saw a little bit of increased business but not too many people saying I want to get out of this car and leave.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Toyota drivers who have their pedals repaired could opt to have the whole part replaced once replacement parts are available.
NHTSA said it was not aware of any deaths or injuries linked to the sticky accelerator problem.
In a separate and larger recall involving 3.8 million vehicles, the U.S. safety agency said Toyota would fix accelerator pedals at risk of being trapped by floor mats and make replacement pedals available starting in April.
In addition, Toyota will install a new brake system on models affected by that recall designed to stop the vehicle if the accelerator and the brake are both engaged.
Five people in two separate accidents have died in the United States because of Toyota accelerator pedals becoming stuck on floor mats, NHTSA said.
Including recalls in China and Europe, 8 million Toyota vehicles are up for repair globally.
Toyota shares closed up 3.8 percent at $79.94 on the New York Stock Exchange on Monday, the stock's first gain in seven trading sessions.
Fears of a heavy and protracted blow to Toyota's sales and bottom line have knocked about $20 billion from its market value in the last week.
(Additional reporting by Chang-Ran Kim in Tokyo; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Matthew Lewis and Steve Orlofsky)