In an example of how small flaws can lead to big bills, Toyota announced this week that a trace of silicone grease and a steering-wheel flutter were behind two recalls covering nearly 700,000 vehicles, according to documents the automaker filed with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The actions affect almost 187,000 Venzas from 2009-11 and Camrys from 2009, as well as about 495,000 Tacoma pickups from 2005-9.
On the Venzas and Camrys, a stray daub of silicone grease may contaminate the stop-lamp switch and cause any of a series of mechanical misadventures, including the failure of the brake light, the failure of the vehicle to start and an inability to shift the automatic transmission out of Park.
Toyota told the safety agency that it learned during its internal investigation that grease from a parking-brake cable was accumulating on the gloves of assembly line workers in Georgetown, Ky., who later handled the stop-lamp switch.
The Tacomas, meanwhile, were being recalled because of a risk that the driver’s air bag may not deploy in a crash. Toyota said it began investigating last year after receiving an unusual number of complaints from owners who had to pay for repairs when their air-bag warning lights were activated, because their vehicles were no longer under warranty.
Bryan Lyons, a Toyota spokesman, wrote in an e-mail that he was not immediately certain how much those repairs would cost. Owners, however, complained to N.H.T.S.A. that dealers wanted as much as $800.
The automaker said it was unable to find a problem with the assembly process or parts in the steering-wheel assembly and eventually began to focus “on the steering wheel characteristics of the Tacoma.” It eventually determined that wheel “flutter” could cause friction on a cable, which could compromise circuits that were related to the air-bag assembly, causing the air-bag warning light to illuminate. Left untreated, the friction could wear away the circuit connections, preventing the air bag from deploying in a crash.
Toyota said owners who already paid for the repair could seek reimbursement. Mr. Lyons wrote that owners would be required to present proof of repair, payment and ownership of the vehicle.
Here are other recent safety actions:
• Nissan is recalling about 23,500 Quest minivans from the 2011-12 model years because the engine may stall. In its report to the agency, the automaker said a problem with the fuel-pump control module could starve the engine when the gas tank was about three-quarters empty.
• Chrysler is recalling 210,000 of its 2004-5 Jeep Liberty sport utility vehicles because a rear suspension component could rust and break. The recall follows an investigation by the agency that began almost a year ago, generated by complaints from owners who said that rear lower control arms were fracturing.
Toyota, Nissan and Chrysler each described the recalls as voluntary, but once an automaker is aware of a safety problem it has no choice but to notify agency within five working days of its plan for a recall.