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Toyota learned of window switch defect 4 years before recall

By Angela Greiling Keane

Bloomberg News

LAST UPDATED: 06:36 a.m. HST, Oct 12, 2012

Toyota Motor Corp. first learned in 2008 about a defect in power-window switches that this week prompted it to recall 7.43 million vehicles worldwide for fire hazards, according to documents filed with U.S. regulators.

Toyota, based in Toyota City, Japan, received a report in September 2008 from the U.S. about “an unusual smell” from the power-window master switch and “thermal damage” to the switch, the company said in a report posted yesterday on the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website.

The automaker sent the part to the supplier to investigate and no “root cause” was found. No other problems with the switch were reported until May 2010, when the company said it began sporadically receiving information about an abnormal smell or smoke coming from driver’s side doors, according to the report.

“There was really no trend early on and it took considerable time to diagnose what seemed to be an isolated problem and how it was occurring,” John Hanson, a U.S.-based spokesman for Toyota, said in an e-mail.

In 2009 and 2010, Toyota, Asia’s biggest carmaker, recalled a record number of vehicles worldwide for defects that may cause unintended acceleration. The company in April 2010 agreed to pay a record $16.4 million U.S. fine for failing to promptly report the flaws with vehicle accelerator pedals.

Nine Injuries

“I’m a little disappointed in that Toyota didn’t act sooner especially because of the debacle in 2010 and, more importantly, the tragedy in 2010,” said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with IHS Automotive, referring to deaths that occurred due to unintended acceleration. “It’s not surprising that they would delay given their pattern of resisting recalls historically.”

The U.S. auto-safety regulator opened an investigation into about 830,000 Camry cars and RAV4 crossover sport-utility vehicles in February after receiving six reports of fires that started in the window switch. It’s received reports of nine injuries and 161 fires, Lynda Tran, a NHTSA spokeswoman, said.

“NHTSA is aware of the recall announced by Toyota” on Oct. 10 and is in contact with the manufacturer, Tran said in an e- mail. “The agency’s investigation remains open pending its review of Toyota’s documents regarding its recall action.”

Toyota didn’t mention any injuries related to the faulty parts when it announced the recall two days ago because the public relations department didn’t have the information at the time, according to Dion Corbett, a Tokyo-based Toyota spokesman.

Corbett also said the automaker didn’t report any accidents from the faulty parts because it defines “accidents” as “collisions and crashes” and there were none resulting from the switch defect.

’Complete Panic’

With the increasing number of fire reports coming shortly after congressional hearings and market-share losses in the U.S., Toyota would have likely been loath to recall more vehicles then for another defect, IHS’s Lindland said.

“The last thing they could really withstand at that point was another recall,” she said in an interview. “I would guess the strategy may have been to address the 10 or 11 complaints and avoid doing a recall at all costs.”

According to a report posted on NHTSA’s website, the driver of a 2007 Camry reported noticing “black smoke throughout the car” that “immediately turned into flames, which caused poor visibility and complete panic” for the driver and three passengers in the car on Dec. 26, 2011. The flames burned the driver’s coat and a passenger’s hand as he tried to put it out.

’Frightening Experience’

“It was a frightening experience for myself and family members as I strongly feel that no one has a clear explanation as to the cause of the fire and fails to ensure my family’s safety and wellbeing,” the driver wrote in the report.

Toyota shares rose 1.2 percent as of 2:37 p.m. in Tokyo trading, while the benchmark Nikkei 225 Stock Average fell 0.2 percent.

The carmaker didn’t provide an estimate on the costs of the recall.

The recall includes about 2.47 million vehicles in the U.S., 1.4 million in China and 1.39 million in Europe, Joichi Tachikawa, a Tokyo-based spokesman, said Oct. 10. It includes vehicles from model years 2007 to 2009 from models including the Camry, RAV4, Corolla, Tundra, Sequoia and Yaris.

Tokai Rika Co, which Toyota confirmed in its NHTSA filing as the supplier of the faulty switches, rose 2.5 percent after slumping 9.6 percent yesterday to the lowest level since March 2009.

With assistance from Anna Mukai and Ma Jie in Tokyo.

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bobbob wrote:
good old toyota, yet another recall. So much for their widely touted reliability.
on October 12,2012 | 06:47AM
Publicbraddah wrote:
Yeah, the reliability issue is one thing but a bigger concern for me is that it took them 4 years before the recall. That puts a big red mark on Toyota.
on October 12,2012 | 01:48PM
nodaddynotthebelt wrote:
Well, another car maker I'm scratching off of my list.
on October 12,2012 | 10:05AM
localguy wrote:
I love your screen name.
on October 12,2012 | 10:40AM
localguy wrote:
Sad to say this is part of Asian culture, always trying to save face even when the evidence against you is over whelming. Japanese government caught Toyota paying off people in Japan to keep car problems under the rug, slammed them with big time fines and worst of all, in front of the TV camera bowing for forgiveness for their willful failure. Sad to say Toyota just continues to fail to learn from their mistakes, doesn't like to admit their failures, hides them from view. If they were more open, more honest, they would look better. Yes, lots of rust on their image, never to be removed.
on October 12,2012 | 10:43AM
EmilySamYiou58 wrote:
they seem to have defects everywhere, even in their extended warranties!!!
on October 12,2012 | 12:21PM
princessvg wrote:
All '00 - '06 Toyota owners should read about cylinder head bolts pulling off of the engine block. It happened to me I have a '04 Highlander with 120k & it's happening all over the U.S. and there is no recall on the engine. Toyota's GM locally said "I think you got your money's worth out of the car". Look at all of Toyota's advertising and they heavily advertise "relaible", never buying a toyota again!!
on October 12,2012 | 01:28PM
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