WASHINGTON — Toyota first learned in 2008 about a defect in power-window switches that prompted it on Wednesday to recall 7.43 million vehicles worldwide for fire hazards, according to documents filed with U.S. regulators.
Toyota received a report in September 2008 from the United States about "an unusual smell" from the power-window master switch and "thermal damage" to the switch, the company said in a report posted Thursday on the 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 email.
In 2009 and 2010, Toyota 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.
"I'm a little disappointed in that Toyota didn't act sooner, especially because of the debacle in 2010," said Rebecca Lindland, an analyst with IHS Automotive. "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 has received reports of nine injuries and 161 fires, said Lynda Tran, an NHTSA spokeswoman.
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 reluctant to recall more vehicles then for another defect, Lindland said.
"The last thing they could really withstand at that point was another recall," she said. "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.
The recall includes about 2.47 million vehicles in the U.S., a Toyota spokesman said.
The recall includes vehicles from model years 2007 to 2009 from models including the Camry, RAV4, Corolla, Tundra, Sequoia and Yaris.