- Jul 17, 2013
Is NHTSA out of control?
The announcements seem to be coming almost every day, if not more frequently: a million-plus Jeeps, a quarter-million Hondas, another million Toyotas. Last year saw a sharp reversal of the long, downward trend in automotive recalls and while it's still too early to say where things will wind up when 2013 winds down, preliminary indications from the first half of the year suggest there'll be another increase, if not an all-time record.
Preliminary indications suggest there may be an all-time recall record in 2013.
Significantly, automakers recalled roughly the same number of vehicles as they sold in 2012, about 14.5 million, notably with Toyota and Honda, two brands traditionally known for their quality and reliability, at the top of the chart. In fact, those two makers have led the list, in terms of individual vehicles recalled, for the last five years. And they were on track to do the same thing again in 2013 – Honda already targeting about 2 million vehicles for problems ranging from airbags to brakes to switch fires – if it weren't for a series of big safety campaigns announced by Chrysler over the last month.
The most recent of these actually combined five separate recalls and covered about 840,000 vehicles, but it was dwarfed by the recall of 1.6 million Jeeps announced – reluctantly – in June. And that controversial campaign raises some serious questions about what's behind the recent rise in the number of recalls.
In terms of individual safety recalls, the total has jumped from around 200 to 300 annually to as many as 700 over the last couple years. The numbers are a bit misleading, however, cautions Clarence Ditlow, director of the consumer group the Center for Auto Safety, or CAS. It reflects recent changes in the basic recall process regulated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. What Ditlow dubs a "silly" recall involving a problem with an aftermarket sunroof once would have counted as a single campaign but now was tallied as 119 separate recalls, one for each of the vendors that installed the sunroofs.
Recalls are a fact of life.
That said, there seems little doubt that the totals have been going up after a bit of a lull.
"Recalls are a fact of life," suggests David Cole, director-emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And he suggests that should be no surprise considering the industry "is pushing technology so hard now. You try to accelerate (the development of) technology but you can't necessarily accelerate the aging process" that might have been more obvious in the past when carmakers took longer to bring new vehicles to market.
Another challenge is that in their effort to improve economies of scale, individual parts and components are shared over a wide range of models and even manufacturers – which was demonstrated by the recall of more than 3.6 million Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda and BMW vehicles due to defective Takata front airbags.
But there are other factors at work. Following the headline-grabbing Ford/Firestone fiasco, Congress passed the so-called TREAD Act, which, among other things, increased penalties on manufacturers who didn't respond in a reasonable time to known safety defects.
There are penalties on manufacturers who don't respond in a reasonable time to known safety defects.
As a result, "Manufacturers became more willing to deal with defects they might have sat on" in the past, rather than risking fines and embarrassing headlines, contends Ditlow, whose organization was founded by consumer activist Ralph Nader.
Over the past decade, lawmakers have enacted even stiffer penalties and taken other steps to monitor potential safety problems. Manufacturers must report any consumer claim relating to a death or injury that might involve a vehicle defect. They're required to provide NHTSA with field reports and warranty information.
And the agency now can order a recall even without the traditional, and sometimes lengthy investigation – though there remain plenty of those, such as one announced this week looking at reported problems with the taillights on Mercedes-Benz C-Class sedans that could short-circuit and even burst into flame.
In the end, NHTSA and Jeep compromised.
Which brings us back to the recent Jeep recall. Initially, it targeted more than 5 million SUVs. NHTSA then demanded Chrysler launch a campaign covering 2.7 million Jeeps. In the end, the two sides compromised on 1.56 million.
To critics like Ditlow, the compromise was a travesty arranged by political appointees, rather than trained safety experts. Ironically, Dr. Cole also sees the original recall order itself as an example of political pressure rather than sound science, a case of the government ordering a fix for a problem that doesn't exist.
For their part, Chrysler officials won't discuss the case for the record, and several company sources TheDetroitBureau.com spoke to weren't eager to take on the topic even off the record. "We don't want to crap on NHTSA," explained one, another adding, "We're going to have to continue working with them and don't need them any angrier at us than they already are."
Are politics to blame? Probably to some degree.
Indeed, the safety agency is apparently planning to revisit the Jeep fire issue and could yet decide that the solution Chrysler proposed isn't good enough. The potential cost of a more extensive repair could reach into the billions, it's been suggested.
Are politics to blame? Probably to some degree. Even the most laissez faire Republicans seemed outraged by the scandal over Toyota's delay in dealing with various unintended acceleration problems – which led to angry hearings on Capitol Hill three years ago and a series of record fines for the Japanese giant. Scolded for letting Toyota slip out of one earlier proposed recall, NHTSA has clearly been less willing to cut makers a break ever since.
Meanwhile, safety advocates have learned how to use the media to nudge makers into action – as happened when Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne initially threatened to reject the Jeep recall order and take the case to court. Crying mothers and scarred burn victims can be compelling forces. And there seems little doubt that consumers, whatever the general political sentiment of the day, are less tolerant of product safety problems than ever before.
Crying mothers and scarred burn victims can be compelling forces.
Add the technical challenges manufacturers face in an ever faster-moving industry and there seems little doubt that recalls will remain a fact of life, probably in increasing numbers going forward.