Toyota shipping replacement parts; no word on when drivers might get fixes

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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DETROIT - Toyota has begun shipping parts to fix the faulty gas pedals that led to a still-expanding recall and an unprecedented decision to stop selling and building some of its top-selling models, but it still could not say Thursday when millions of its drivers would get their cars fixed.
The world's largest automaker, bleeding millions of dollars a day in lost sales, also declined to say where the parts are going - to plants so production can start again or to dealers so they can start fixing cars sitting in their showrooms or already on the road.
Amid the uncertainty, the recall grew wider. Toyota expanded the recall beyond an initial 2.3 million vehicles in the U.S. and 270,000 in Canada and said it would recall an untold number in Europe and about 75,000 in China because of bad gas pedals that can become stuck.
The recall even spread beyond Toyota. Ford Motor Co. stopped production of some full-sized commercial vehicles built by a Chinese joint venture because they have accelerators built by the same parts supplier as in the Toyota recall.
Separately, Toyota recalled 1.1 million more vehicles this week because of floor mats that can bend and hold down the gas.
The gas pedal system recall includes 2009-2010 RAV4, the 2009-2010 Corolla, the 2009-2010 Matrix, the 2005-2010 Avalon, the 2007-2010 Camry, the 2010 Highlander, the 2007-2010 Tundra and the 2008-2010 Sequoia.
Toyota said the maker of the faulty gas pedal systems, CTS Corp. of Elkhart, Ind. (NYSE:CTS), was cranking out replacements at three factories, including one just west of Toronto, and that some of them already been shipped to Toyota.
At the same time, Toyota engineers are working with CTS to develop ways to repair, rather than replace, the pedal systems in existing cars and trucks, said spokesman Brian Lyons.
But there was no estimate for how long it would be until customers can get their cars fixed. The parts are being made at CTS plants, but Toyota has not said where they're going within its system of plants and dealers.
"We're well past the root cause identification, and we're well past what needs to be done to change the pedal assembly itself," Lyons said.
House of Representatives legislators, meanwhile, said they intend to hold a Feb. 25 hearing to review the complaints of sudden unintended acceleration in Toyota vehicles. "Like many consumers, I am concerned by the seriousness and scope of Toyota's recent recall announcements," said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif. In a statement, Toyota pledged its "full co-operation" with the committee.
The episode has tarnished Toyota's once-sterling image of reliability. Experts say the longer it goes on, the more Toyota's competitors will benefit.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he had no details of how the problems would be fixed but said he had "no criticism of Toyota on this. They followed the law and they're doing what they're supposed to do."
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration officials met with Toyota representatives to discuss the fix on Thursday, but no details were announced.
The automaker does not need regulatory approval to make repairs or replacements, but company officials do not want to proceed with a fix if the government has concerns, said people familiar with the decisions who requested anonymity because the meeting was private.
Asked whether Americans should continue to drive the recalled vehicles, LaHood said he would "encourage them to take their car to the Toyota dealer. That's what we're telling people to do. That's what Toyota is telling people to do. That's the safest thing to do."
Safety experts say the best thing to do if the gas pedal sticks is to hit the brake hard and hold it firmly, then shift into neutral or shut the car off and steer to the curb. They say drivers should not pump the brake.
Toyota offered its most detailed description of the problem: Condensation can form in the mechanism that connects the foot pedal to the car's engine, causing friction that prevents the pedal from smoothly springing back when the driver eases up.
Jake Fisher, senior automotive engineer for Consumer Reports magazine, said the water probably causes corrosion.
The parts produced by CTS include the plastic pedal on which the driver's foot rests and the plastic arm beneath it, which runs through a hole in the floorboard and ultimately into a box in the engine compartment. Inside the box are springs that push the pedal back to its resting position when the driver takes his foot off the gas.
"It sounds like the pivot point is not moving freely, so the springs don't have the power to return the pedal to the normal position," Fisher said.
CTS has said that the problem is rare - occurring in fewer than a dozen cases - and that no accidents or injuries have been linked to the pedal. The head of CTS, Vinod Khilnani, said his company built the pedal to Toyota's specifications.
A consumer group, Safety Research and Strategies, has said it identified 2,274 cases of unintended acceleration in Toyotas leading to at least 275 crashes and 18 deaths since 1999. Toyota would not confirm those figures.
Toyota said the problems occur as the parts wear over time, so drivers should be able to feel more resistance in pressing their gas pedals, and they would return slowly to normal positions. This would occur before the accelerator might stick, Fisher said.
If drivers do feel more resistance in the gas pedal they should contact their Toyota dealer, the carmaker says.
"It's my understanding that the problem doesn't come out of the blue," Fisher said. "With time there becomes more and more friction, and it doesn't operate as smoothly as intended."
In a twist, Toyota's own streamlined production system, which allows the company to control quality by using relatively few parts suppliers around the world, appears to have made for a more extensive recall.
No matter what the fix, the cost to Toyota will be staggering - probably in the tens of millions, perhaps higher. Jim Gillette, a supplier analyst with consulting company CSM Worldwide, estimated it might cost $25 to $30 per vehicle, plus labour.
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AP Business Writers Stephen Manning in Washington and Dee-Ann Durbin in Detroit contributed to this report. Ken Thomas reported from Washington.

Organizations: Toyota, CTS Corp., Ford Motor Co. NYSE House of Representatives House Energy and Commerce Committee National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Consumer Reports magazine CSM Worldwide

Geographic location: DETROIT, U.S., Canada Europe China Elkhart, Ind. Toronto Washington

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