NHTSA Data Dive 4: Did Toyota Recall The Wrong Cars?

nhtsa data dive 4 did toyota recall the wrong cars

When it comes to mountains of data like the NHTSA vehicle complaint data base, one man’s junk is another man’s treasure(trove). Yes, there are limitations. But the remarkable degree of similarity of the UA rate between most badge engineered cars, and GM’s consistently low UA ratings speak of statistical relevance to some of us. One of those is David Lapidus, (TTAC handle: David42), whose data diving and Excel skills vastly overshadow mine.

In the last data dive, I used numbers from Edmunds to come up with a UA complaint rate for 117 cars from MY 2005-2010, excluding the flurry of complaints filed with NHTSA after the Toyota mat recall 0f 9/29/09. But those are cumulative, over the five years. David has taken it to the next level, to the individual model year. We may come back to the whole list another time, but initially we decided to focus on the Toyota Camry, since its large volume of sales and UA complaints would inherently increase the statistical accuracy of the numbers. And although this data dive may not solve the UA puzzle, it does raise serious questions about the most recent recalls and the Congressional barbecue of Toyota. David sifted and examined complaints going back to 1995 (and cut off after 9/29/09) for all 1995 and newer MY Camrys for all UA incidents (vehicle speed control including the following areas: accelerator pedals, cables, cruise control, linkages, springs).

This following chart lets us read the annual complaint history for each model year: for each model year, it shows how many complaints were filed per calendar year. For example, in the upper-right corner you can see a bubble labeled with the number “11.” (It’s all the way to the right, second from the top). This means that for model year 2007 Camrys, people filed 11 complaints in calendar year 2009.

Some observations:

  • Among recalled cars (MY 2007-2010), only MY 2007 looks problematic. That is the first year of the CTS pedal, as well as a new physical pedal design that could cause mat entrapment. Yet model years 2008 and 2009 have barely any complaints at all. Specifically, MY 2007 Camrys have 89 complaints (19 + 70) in the first two calendar years. MY 2008 has only 7 complaints (3 + 4). And though there’s only one year of data for MY 2009, the ONE complaint for that MY hardly suggests that the accelerator pedals or floor mat issue was a common UA issue with actual users.
  • There is/was obviously a serious problem with the previous-generation Camry (2002-2006). MY 2002 was the year the first e-pedal was introduced. But its design was completely different from the CTS or Denso units used after 2007. And its physical pedal shape made mat entrapment unlikely, if not impossible. (I have taken detailed pictures of these various vintage pedals). We don’t know the specific nature or how serious the problem in the complaints is. (Complaints can be filed for causing anything from a minor inconvenience to death.) We DO know that the 2002-2006 models caused an average of 2.2 to 3.9 injuries per calendar year. That’s far more than the supposedly-dangerous 2007 model year cars, which caused an average of 1 injury per calendar year.
  • For most (but not all) model years, the second year is the worst. Perhaps this tells us something about when the problematic component is most likely to fail.

Now here’s a simpler chart that shows only the year the complaint was filed—all model years are lumped together. So it’s easy to see that the number of Camry complaints spiked in 2004, and stayed pretty high until 2007 (especially compared to the Honda Accord):

Now here’s the strange thing: In 2008 and 2009, complaints dropped back down to the pre-2002 level. It’s as if all the Camrys were suddenly cured, just before the recall and untold billions chopped from Toyota’s market capitalization. And what exactly was going with those MY ’02-’03 Camrys? That’s no statistical fluke. Whatever was wrong with them, how come they stopped generating complaints in 2008 and 2009? Can anyone help us make more sense of these numbers? We promise to share that one million dollar prize.

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2 of 26 comments
  • Evanson Evanson on Mar 08, 2010

    I'm in the money management business and deal with statistical data every day. A possible explanation of the high bar in 2004 is that it is not out of the ordinary and indicates nothing other than random variation. We can't know if it's statistically significant because we don't have nearly enough years of data to meet statistical criteria, we're not comparing the data to UA problems in other vehicles, etc. If UA incidents distribute themselves in a normal curve we could determine the significance of the 2004 numbers. I've repeatedly wondered about this Toyata media slaughter. Did significantly more consumers die or get injured in Toyotas in 2004 than died or got injured in other makes and similar sized models per 10k vehicles? I sorta kinda doubt it.

  • Psarhjinian Psarhjinian on Mar 09, 2010

    Toyota in general and the Camry in particular** have suffered first-year teething problems, enough to see CR revoke their post-redesign automatic recommendation. What you might be seeing is the result of those troubles. I asked this question once before: when did the NHTSA make their complaint system accessible via the web? ** as well as the 4Runner, Avalon and Sienna

  • RHD Too bad Ford axed the Mercury brand. There must be pallets and crates of old Mercury badges just sitting around that they could use.
  • RHD Will they allow Shell gasoline to fuel their cars, or only Chevron?
  • RHD No manual transmission available? No dice. At least you can swap out the wheels to allow for more than an inch of sidewall.
  • Master Baiter Great car. Too bad you can't find one, anywhere. They are made in Germany, which happens to be in a state of turmoil due to Biden's proxy war.
  • RHD The initial asking price is excessive by a power of ten. By the author's own words, it's slow, wallowy, has lousy steering, cramped back seats, and is based on the Torino. It has only 29,000 miles because no one ever wanted to drive this barge. Anything would be better than this outdated land yacht. To call it "mediocre" would be a compliment. 15 grand can buy a hell of a better vehicle than this heap from the days of poor build quality, half-assed emissions equipment, excessive thirst and warmed-over, obsolete equipment. Ford should be ashamed for building this junk, which would embarrass anyone owning it. The seller is hoping and praying that some incognizant drunk will accidently hit "buy it now" at three in the morning.