In late January, Toyota asked dealers to stop selling certain models of its cars in hopes of avoiding a recall. According to a document published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the automaker also petitioned the safety regulator to allow Toyota to handle the correction of seat fabrics deemed to have a risk of catching fire. Toyota believes the chances of a seat catching fire in the 206,000 vehicles involved are “essentially zero.”
When Toyota originally alerted dealers to stop selling models of its Corolla, Avalon, Sienna, and Camry that had potentially flammable seats, U.S. company sales head Bob Carter estimated the “stop-sell” order would affect about 35,000 vehicles, or the equivalent of 13 percent of the company’s inventory on U.S. lots in January.
As Carter disclosed at the time, Toyota still needed to research and calculate how many vehicles with the seats installed had been sold to U.S. consumers. The number is far higher than the estimate given at the time. According to Toyota’s petition to the NHTSA, a total of 206,271 Toyota automobiles had the suspect seats installed.
Toyota may have been concerned about the impact on sales volumes since heated seats are likely to be in highest demand during the winter sales months. However, the impact of a recall affecting hundreds of thousands of vehicles would be worse. To that end, the automaker presented its case for why the dangers were not worthy of a recall. In the automaker’s estimation, the surrounding components of the seat — including the seat cover and padding — helped negate the flammability of the heating unit itself.Toyota makes a case to the NHTSA that the surrounding components live up the fire safety standards of “composite” seating units. The automaker is essentially arguing that seats are highly unlikely to catch fire because the structure as a whole is safe.
“Toyota believes that its testing and design review of the seat heater assemblies indicates that the chance of fire or flame induced by a malfunctioning seat heater is essentially zero,” the petition reads. Quoting federal guidelines for safe seat construction, the petition notes that matches and lit cigarettes would not come into contact with the heating assembly because it is inside the seat.
To add the icing onto its defense cake, Toyota noted that the heating assembly comprised one percent of the overall seat; that there have been no reports of fires; and that there are precedents of the NHTSA accepting similar petitions in the past. It seems to be a reasonable case. Whether the NHTSA accepts it remains to be seen.