Toyota knew about defect years before recall

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Will Toyota's name be tarnished by its delay in launching its most recent recall? Image: twicepix/Flickr/CC BY-SA

According to Automotive news, Toyota was alerted to an issue in 2008 that ultimately prompted the recall of 7.43 million Toyota and Scion vehicles around the world four years later. Some are questioning why the automaker waited so long.

The reputation of Toyota?

The sales and reputation of Toyota were finally rebounding after the massive unintended acceleration recalls of 2009 and 2010. However, if any regained trust has not been shaken by the large recall effort announced Wednesday, it may well be by Thursday’s revelations that the automaker knew of the defect four years before it initiated that recall.

Wednesday’s recall was over a master switch in the driver’s side door that controls the windows. The switches may not have been lubricated properly when they were assembled by the parts supplier. Without proper lubrication, the switches can heat up and, eventually, start a fire inside the door panel.

First complaint in 2008

Now we learn, however, that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received its first complaint about the problem in 2008. That complaint cited heat damage and a strange odor coming from the switch. That switch was replaced and its maker, Tram Inc., was contacted about the problem. Its parent company, Tokai Rika, examined the pulled switch and said it could find no defect. At that juncture, Toyota dropped its case against the supplier.

Investigation opened in 2010

Two years later, Toyota opened an investigation, following more reports of smoke and, sometimes, flames emanating from the master switch area. It was reported that the switches could become “sticky” prior to heating up and smoking. Some owners and mechanics tried to fix the switch with commercial lubricants, which exacerbated the problem and led to more incidents of actual combustion.

In all, there have been more than 160 reports of door fires. Eight injuries have occurred as a result of those fires.

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Supplier changed lubrication method

The answer came in August of this year when Toyota learned that Tokai Rika changed its procedure for lubricating the switches. At one time it used a spray lubricant, but that was replaced by a lubricant that was squeezed from a tube. That manual application, however, may have led to a  less even distribution of the lubricant. That, over time, could have led to it becoming ineffective at preventing friction.

Tokai Rika says it switched back to the spray-on lubricant in 2010, eliminating the problem in vehicles built after that time.

Toyota stalling?

Toyota says it delayed launching the recall until it was sure about what caused the switches to fail. Until that time, it says, a fix could not be determined for the problem. — Although simply replacing the switch does come to mind.

Toyota took heat for delaying its recalls for unintended acceleration issues in 2009 and 2010. Some may see this latest delay as more of the same.

The recall affects multiple models made between 2007 and 2009. The affected owners will be contacted before the end of the month, when they will be asked to take their vehicles to a dealership, such as Magic Toyota Scion Edmonds, to have the master switch replaced or re-lubricated. The NHTSA also warns that any attempts to lubricate the switch with commercial lubricants will only make the problem worse.


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