By Ben Klayman
DETROIT Jan 30 Toyota Motor Corp has
alerted U.S. safety officials that seat material in several
vehicles, including its top-selling Camry sedan, fails to meet
fire retardation standards and could result in a recall.
Toyota said on Thursday it had stopped selling eight
recent-model vehicles equipped with seat heaters in North
America following an advisory about fire risk from South Korean
safety officials. The world largest automaker said it did not
believe a recall was necessary, however.
South Korea applies the same fire retardation standards as
those used in the United States, where the cars were built
starting in August 2012. Some of the U.S.-built models were
exported to South Korea.
The Japanese automaker said there have been no reports of
fires or injuries related to the problem. The safety standard
requires a certain burn rate as a flame moves across the seat
heater's cloth pad.
Toyota said the number of affected vehicles at its U.S.
dealers totaled about 36,000, or about 13 percent of dealer
inventory, but that does not include vehicles in transit to
dealers or those already sold to consumers. In the United States
alone, the number of affected vehicles could top 111,000,
according to research firm Kelley Blue Book.
From the hit it took to its quality reputation during past
recalls related to unintended acceleration, Toyota has learned
that it cannot delay action on these issues, Kelley Blue Book
analysts said. But the decision to stop selling high-volume
models with seat heaters will be costly.
"The timing of this issue, and its impact on Toyota's most
popular models, couldn't be much worse," Kelley Blue Book senior
analyst Karl Brauer said. "Given that much of the U.S. is
currently in the grips of a record cold snap, there's sure to be
high demand for models with seat heaters.
"Toyota officials appear confident there is no risk and as
a result they feel any hit to the company's reputation would be
short-lived and less costly than a full recall," he added.
From late 2009 to early 2011, Toyota recalled nearly 19
million vehicles globally related to unintended acceleration
claims. In 2010, Toyota President Akio Toyoda apologized for the
company's handling of the recalls and said he would insist on
customer safety first.
Toyota was fined $17.35 million in December 2012 for being
slow on a recall, still the single highest civil penalty ever
paid to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
for violations stemming from a recall.
In July 2013, a U.S. judge approved a settlement valued at
more than $1.6 billion to resolve economic-loss claims resulting
from the alleged safety defects. The company is still trying to
settle related personal-injury lawsuits.
Toyota spokesman John Hanson said on Thursday the company
has informed NHTSA of the fire retardation problem and would
file an official report outlining the noncompliance with the
standard. He added that Toyota did not feel a recall was
The petition that Toyota will file with NHTSA says the
problem is "inconsequential" in terms of vehicle safety, even
though the cars are no longer being sold by dealers because they
do not meet U.S. safety standards, he said.
The U.S. safety agency said it was aware of the upcoming
petition and would seek public comment once it had been filed.
"NHTSA is monitoring the risk associated with this
noncompliance and will evaluate Toyota's petition once it is
received," the agency said in an emailed statement. "As always,
safety is our top priority and NHTSA will take appropriate
action as warranted."
Affected vehicles are the 2012-2014 Camry mid-sized sedan
and Camry hybrid; 2013-2014 Avalon sedan, Avalon hybrid, Sienna
minivan, and Tacoma pickup truck; and 2014 Corolla subcompact
and Tundra pickup truck equipped with seat heaters that have
been sold since August 2012, when the fabric supplier was
changed, Hanson and NHTSA said.
From the start of August 2012 through the end of 2013,
Toyota in the United States sold 1,396,807 of the affected
models, including those without seat heaters, according to
Kelley Blue Book. Eight percent of the 2013 and 2014 model-year
vehicles were sold with seat heaters, suggesting more than
111,000 in the United States have the noncompliant parts, KBB
Toyota dealers have been told to stop selling any of the
affected vehicles until the seat heater can be replaced, Hanson
said. The automaker will address requests by individual owners
to replace the part at no cost on a case-by-case basis.