Toyota Power Window Fires and Excessive Lubrication: A Worldwide Epidemic

Question for the lads and lassies over at the Office of Defects Investigation: Are you going to penalize Toyota for waiting three years to recall a variety of models in the U.S. for power window switch fires, after it launched recalls for 770,540 substantially similar vehicles of the same model years in China, New Zealand and Japan in August and October of 2009?

The power window door fire issue got our attention February, when NHTSA opened Preliminary Evaluations into power window switch fires in the General Motors 2006-2007 Chevy Trailblazers and several 2007 Toyota models, including the Camry, the RAV4, the Highlander Hyrbrid and the Yaris. Consumers were reporting spontaneous burn incidents emanating from the power window switch area, starting –  but not always ending – with smoke and noxious odors. Few injuries; but many of the incidents happened while the vehicle was underway, and let’s face it, interior compartment fires are very distracting while driving.

It was NHTSA’s preliminary theory that perhaps the two automakers shared a common window switch supplier that would explain the defect trend.  And, both investigations proceeded together closely in parallel – like VPA1 and VPA2 circuits on the Accelerator Pedal Position Sensor in some early model Toyota Camrys. (Sorry, we can’t resist a little Unintended Acceleration humor.)  In mid-June, ODI bumped both PEs up to Engineering Analyses, and it turned out that GM and Toyota did not share suppliers.

GM was the first to concede the need for a recall. On August 17, GM recalled 249,260 2006 Chevrolet Trailblazer EXT and GMC Envoy XL, 2006-07 Chevrolet Trailblazer; GMC Envoy; Buick Rainer; SAAB 9-7x; and lsuzu Ascender s in a slew of states because fluid could seep into the door module, causing corrosion and a short that could render the power window or door locks inoperable, and in some cases, ignite.

Toyota, which had been whipsawed by a series of large recalls relating to its ongoing unintended acceleration problems, held out until earlier this month. It also pinpointed contamination in the Power Window Master Switch (PWMS), but its root cause scenario was more elaborate, and frankly, sinister. And that is why we always enjoy settling in with a frosty beer and a Toyota chronology of events—they have all the hallmarks of a good mystery—dropped clues, a variety of suspects, and a satisfying conclusion in which Toyota demonstrates without a shadow of a doubt, that it is innocent.

This one begins in September 2008, when “Toyota received a Field Technical Report (FTR) from the US market indicating an unusual smell coming from the PWMS and thermal damage on the PWMS.” This dead Power Window Master Switch, however, told no tales. The burned-out part was sent to the supplier, which could have been one of two listed in Toyota’s Defect and Noncompliance Part 573 report, TRAM, Inc. of Michigan or Tokai-Rika in Japan, but no root cause found.

The intrepid defect detectives at Toyota pick up the trail again in May 2010, when sporadic field reports began coming in, and the hunt for the root cause was back on.

Notice any years left out so far? Did you say 2009? That’s right! Toyota had a problem with power window master switches catching fire in China and Japan caused by, according to one press report about a recall of Japanese models in New Zealand “excessive lubrication.” The Japan Ministry of Transport had 32 reports of malfunction, including one fire, prompting the recall of 82,226 Vitz vehicles in Japan, which is a sister to the U.S. Yaris, Echo and Scion. The China recall was much larger – 688,314 Corolla, Camry, Yaris, and Vios vehicles, in segments of the 2005-2008 model years – also due to “excessive grease application.” As Toyota explained in its response to NHTSA investigation PE12002, the switches used in the U.S. counterparts, which ranged from the Lexus ES350 to the Solara, to the Venza were totally different than those used in the U.S. vehicles.

More importantly, the lubrication issues were completely different in the three cases. Toyota included factory photos (redacted of course) showing how switches were factory greased in its China plants compared to how it was done in their Japan facility. There was a lot of talk about the number and position of greasing nozzles and how that grease insinuated itself around the switch. In the U.S., Toyota said, the guilty party was: The Customer! (duh-duh-DUH!)

In the U.S., the vehicles with completely different switches actually suffered from the opposite problem. The switches were not greased enough at the factory. Over time, this led to the alleged sticking power window switch problem, which, in turn, drove Toyota customers to engage in vigilante repairs, spraying commercially available lubricant willy-nilly into their power window master switch. Mystery solved!

We always like to look at the evidence, so we searched through the Vehicle Owner Questionnaires sent to NHTSA for any report involving a power window switch and smoke or fire. Amazingly, not one consumer complained that previous to the fire, the window switch was notchy or sticky – which is allegedly why U.S. customers are engaging lubricants on their switches. Not one admitted to lubricating the switch, let alone excessively so. What they did describe was a spontaneous event, although a consumer or two mentioned that the window stopped working altogether before the meltdown.

We figured, if anyone is greasing a power window switch, it’s the uber-owners in a Toyota chat forum. Those folks are auto enthusiasts and DIYers, trading repair tips and seeking troubleshooting help. While we didn’t see any reports about sticking switches or lubrication, we thought this member’s observation was interesting:

“The problem is that the power window system is fused with one 30 Amp fuse for all of the windows. 30 Amps is a lot of current and through a marginally undersized wire or circuit board trace it can mean the generation of a whole lot of heat (423 Watts of heat that is). Toyota cars in New Zealand are being recalled due to a faulty window switch.”

So let’s see, we have multiple recalls for the same problem. Toyota offers an explanation that doesn’t match consumers’ complaints. Toyota blames others for defect, but eventually announces large recall. Haven’t we heard it all before?

Poor Toyota. Its customers are always stacking mats improperly, or bellyaching about electronic power steering that doesn’t feel good, or claiming that their vehicle did things that defy the laws of physics and Toyota engineering – like suddenly accelerating and failing to stop in time to prevent a crash. Its techs were fingered in a 2009 Sienna minivan recall for unintended acceleration caused by the failure to replace a carpet mat retention clip properly:

“First, it is undisputed that the retention clips were all installed properly at the factory and that they do not fall out on their own. Therefore the only way the clip will ever be missing is if the clip is not properly replaced after performing a repair operation which involves removal of the Floor Carpet Cover. The failure by an independent third party to perform such a basic and obvious, step (i.e. replacing the clip) cannot factually or legally be attributed to the vehicle manufacturer, and thus such a failure cannot provide the basis for a finding of a safety defect in the design, manufacture, or performance of the subject vehicles,” Toyota huffed in its Part 573 defect report.

Can no one use a Toyota right?