Total Recall

The New Standard in Automotive Quality?

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Each day, millions of vehicles with potentially dangerous defects are travelling on highways and roads. It is estimated that one in six vehicles in Canada have an outstanding safety recall. These vehicles carry our friends, our families, our coworkers and community members.
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Recalls are becoming all too common, having increased significantly in number over the past decade, and consumers are becoming desensitized to them. Be it food recalls, product safety recalls, medicine recalls, or one of the most common of them all, automotive recalls, consumers have come to expect the recalls which are shaping consumer culture.

Often, the potential risks from the defective component may be minimal. However, in some cases, faulty components can result in serious illness, injury or even death. Actor Anton Yelchin was accidentally crushed to death by his vehicle when the shifter failed. The recall notice for the defective shifter on certain Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge vehicles would arrive in his mailbox after his death.

In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recalled more vehicles than were sold. Given the rate of failure of products and the seeming inability of manufacturers to provide consistent quality and safety standards, it is expected that consumer confidence would waver, but that has not been the case.

As an economic indicator, consumer confidence measures the degree of consumer optimism in personal and overall financial performance, relative to current economic conditions. A positive consumer confidence can influence sales and create the potential for growth.

Recalls can truly be a nightmare for both the consumer and the manufacturer. Despite sales increases, dealerships are frustrated with these incessant recalls, and they too want more stringent regulations and policies so that action can be taken and the issue can be fixed by the industry association, the provincial government, the federal government or the manufacturer itself. An automaker’s rate of response is of paramount importance.

Tesla has proven to be a leader in this regard. Tesla issued recalls based on its own findings as opposed to direction from the NHTSA. It has also taken top spot for timeliness in which issues are addressed. Tesla’s issues have always been of a serious nature, but the company upholds its one hundred percent manufacturer-initiated recall rate.

BMW is also ranked as one of the most reactive when dealing with safety-related defects. Of the largest automakers, GM has the best rating for timeliness, whereas Mazda ranked among the bottom of the list. It is one thing to issue a recall, but it is quite another to be highly responsive and take action in a way that will resolve the issue and regain the consumer’s confidence.

There are numerous studies that rate automobile performance and automaker responsiveness. While many automakers endeavour to have a product selected as the vehicle of the year in its respective class, all of them wish to avoid high rankings on recall lists.

iSeeCars helps consumers conduct a smarter search before committing to purchasing a vehicle. It recently published findings of the best and worst recall rates for automakers from January 1985 to September 2016 and calculated the rate of recall by dividing the number of recalls by the number of new vehicles sold by each automaker.

The industry average was 1,115 vehicles recalled for every 1,000 sold. Porsche had the lowest rate of recall over the three decades while Volkswagen’s non-luxury brand had the highest rate of recall during the same period.

Among the other top performers were Mercedes-Benz, Kia, Tesla, Mazda, Subaru, Toyota, Nissan, Jaguar Land Rover and Mitsubishi. Volkswagen, Chrysler, Honda, Hyundai, Volvo and Ford all posted higher than industry average recall numbers as well.

One of the most significant recalls of all time occurred in the 1980s and affected twenty-one million vehicles, costing Ford $1.7 billion. A safety defect was discovered in Ford’s transmission system which caused vehicles to slip out of park and into reverse unexpectedly. The outcome was a total of 6,000 accidents, 1,700 injuries and ninety-eight deaths.

Ford was in the news again for a similar recall that included 53,000 2017 F-250 trucks that run the risk of rolling away when parked. Ford is emphasizing the use of the parking brake until the problem can be repaired at no cost to vehicle owners. Replacement parts are currently not available, and customers will be notified when they are.

There are many reasons for purchasing a vehicle. Whether buyers are seeking the highest performance and aesthetic or something economical, reliable and safe, one thing is consistent: people expect their vehicle purchase to come with a certain guarantee of quality and safety.

The failure of safety features is a hot issue, and in 1995, the Takata seatbelt scandal was a major news story. The recall affected 8.3 million Honda, Nissan, Chrysler, Mitsubishi, GM, Mazda, Suzuki, Subaru and Isuzu models from the 1986 to 1995 model years and involved a seatbelt defect.

These findings were the product of nine months of investigation and nearly one thousand consumer complaints to NHTSA. The button on the seatbelt latch had the propensity to crack, rendering it useless, jamming the locking mechanism and trapping individuals in their seats. Takata offered free replacements which cost the company $1 billion.

Two decades later, automotive parts company Takata found itself at the center of a fiasco again. This Takata recall was due to an airbag defect that is considered to be the largest and most complex safety recall in the U.S. and the world.

In November 2014, the NHTSA initiated the recall which has grown to include over forty million vehicles from nearly twenty automakers from the 2002 to 2015 model years. The total number of airbags recalled has reached upwards of seventy million.

The defect results from the operation of the metal cartridge that inflates the airbag. When the propellant wafers are activated, the airbag can inflate with excessive force, and the explosion of the inflation device can end in shrapnel being sent throughout the vehicle cabin.

The issue was caused by the failure to use a chemical drying agent alongside the ammonium nitrate-based propellant, and environmental moisture and high temperatures can exacerbate the problem.

The company acknowledged guilt for its actions in February 2017 and settled the matter for $1 billion. Three of its former top executives also face charges for attempting to cover up the matter. Of that, $25 million is dedicated to paying a criminal penalty, $850 million is restitution for automakers, and the remainder is for individuals and families affected by the defect and recall. The future of Takata itself is now in question as the company faces bankruptcy.

This resolution does not change the fact that the defect caused 180 injuries and eleven deaths in the U.S. alone. There is no amount of money that can make up for the loss of life. Automakers continue to insist that they were unaware of the defect.

This is only just scratching the surface of the number and severity of automotive recalls over the past several decades.

Canadian law requires manufacturers to issue recalls. They must notify the vehicle owners as well as report to Transport Canada with repair completion rates. In the U.S., completion rates are not made available publicly.

While writing this article, our household received correspondence regarding our Mazda CX-5. A special service program (SSP) was issued concerning a frontal air bag issue, as evaluated by the NHTSA in a front oblique crash test. Mazda will reprogram the sophisticated airbag sensor (SAS) with modified software free of charge; we just have to make the appointment.

There are many reasons why someone might not be aware of an active recall. Sometimes the notification is not received; sometimes the letter is ignored or discarded on the assumption that it is just another brochure or new car sales pitch and there are instances in which the receiver of the notification no longer owns the vehicle in question.

There are currently no mandates in place that require the repair of defects before the sale of a vehicle. There is nothing to stop Canadian automobile dealerships from selling vehicles that have an open recall.

The general sentiment from industry associations is that they believe that manufacturers do everything in their power to notify customers of recalls. Others are of the belief that more needs to be done on the part of the consumer to be proactive and vigilant when it comes to vehicle maintenance, upgrades and repairs.

Past performance is no longer indicative of future success. But, what more will it take to shake consumer confidence enough that we demand changes in safety and quality standards?

As long as automakers and product manufacturers can address these issues in a courtroom, paying the necessary costs to make up for their wrongdoing and subpar quality, can customers really expect more of their automobiles or will the recall culture remain status quo?

Consumers deserve better, but need to demand it. The minimal public outcry related to these recalls is astonishing. Consumers remain confident in an economy and industry that puts their safety and wellbeing at risk each day. Without the public holding manufacturers and legislators accountable, recall culture shows no sign of ending.

October 20, 2017, 2:06 PM EDT

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