Recent Rises in Recall Numbers A Cause For Alarm



Preliminary indications suggest there may be an all-time recall record in 2013.

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.

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 announcedreluctantly – in June. And that controversial campaign raises some serious questions about what's behind the recent rise in the number of recalls.
Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis. This story was reprinted with permission from the author and TheDetroitBureau.com.



Recalls are a fact of life.

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.

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.

There are penalties on manufacturers who don't respond in a reasonable time to known safety defects.

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.

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.

In the end, NHTSA and Jeep compromised.

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.

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.

Are politics to blame? Probably to some degree.

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."

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.

Crying mothers and scarred burn victims can be compelling forces.

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.

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.
Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis. This story was reprinted with permission from the author and TheDetroitBureau.com.




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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 100 Comments
      PatrickH
      • 1 Year Ago
      In all my years as a reader of all things automotive I have never read anything that speaks positively of Clarence Ditlow. The guy is a bureaucratic hack.
      enorvesh61
      • 1 Year Ago
      They need to recall congress and do a brain scan to find the reason for so much incompetency.!
      eb50tj
      • 1 Year Ago
      Make safer D R I V E R S !!!!!!! It IS a privelage NOT a RIGHT. Cars are plenty safe, There are mechanical failures, sure. BUT The driver HAS to stop this B S with the bottom feeders (lawyers) THEY are what is ruining this country and making EVERYTHING more expensive. PERIOD!!!!!!!
        mxsleeper
        • 1 Year Ago
        @eb50tj
        It IS a right here in this country. However...one cannot do so without acquiring the proper credentials. Sort of like having the right to own a business. To pursue prosperity. Can't do it without getting the right papers. Good driving involves utilizing good judgment, skill, and reaction, with a dash of courtesy thrown in. Driver's license tests are standard, and driver's license courses are not thorough enough. There's a lot that they don't take into account, and who the hell can tell if William, Helen, Thurgood, Dikimbe, or Chou Tzu are gonna be able to keep it together in the event of a potentially life-threatening situation. Enough to make a difference, anyway. Even tests for disabled people have standardization. Most people don't even have an idea of how these "nannies" work, or what their limits are. They just jump in the damn car and go. Only lazy people expect others to do their work for them. Drivers should be required to know, and be fully trained, in the use of the type of vehicle that they are purchasing/gifted. Isn't it Norway, or Denmark (I know it's one of the Euro snow countries) that require new drivers to complete a battery of tests and looooong training period before the potential driver can get their license?
      RobbieAG
      • 1 Year Ago
      YES
      Avinash Machado
      • 1 Year Ago
      Indeed,yes.
      ruthsgardens
      • 1 Year Ago
      What aggravates me the most is the trade agreements.Watching our manufacturing plants close down,which made quality parts,is disheartening.Allowing Mexico to assemble our products looked good on paper at first.They would buy our parts,assemble them and then sell the product back to us for a profit.Because congress will not readdress the open ends in the trade agreements,Mexico has abused it.Now Mexico buys the cheap,crap plastic and high carbon steel parts from China.They use them to assemble our products,sell it back to us for the same price.Mexico makes more profit and now China does to.But americans lose their jobs and the manufacturing plants close down while China builds another.No it is not because of unions.It is because congress will not readdress the tax codes and trade agreements.Corporations will outsource jobs because they can.Americans cannot compete with laborers in other countries making 1-4 bucks an hour.Damn our congress,both parties,for allowing it to happen.
      John
      • 1 Year Ago
      Yes NHTSA is going to far not with recalls but with the "nanny" requirements that have given rise to a generation of bad drivers who depend on artifical controls like abs, traction, stability, radar spacing, automatic braking and other systems to keep them on the road. Do not get me wrong these are great things BUT are no sunstitute for good basic driving skills. These systems can only do so much before they exceed the parameters of thier programing and then you are on your own. And if you do not have good basic skills your in deep deep trouble.
        calderasf
        • 1 Year Ago
        @John
        Safety is teribble I long for the days of cars skidding out of control down our countries roads.
      calderasf
      • 1 Year Ago
      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. So why does the title state gov't going to far? They didn't make the defective airbags? Would you want to own a car with a defective air bag.
      robitrobit
      • 1 Month Ago

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      David MacGillis
      • 1 Year Ago
      Based on what I\'ve seen, esp. around the Jeep issue, I\'d have to say so. You can\'t move the goalposts after the game has started no matter how badly you feel the game might be going. If the government sets a regulation and a vehicle is built to meet or exceed that regulation and the regulation isn\'t stringent enough, the regulation needs to be changed.. If the government wants Chrysler to re-engineer vehicles in the field that passed and still pass regulations in place at the time they were built, they should give them a tax credit to offset the cost of the changes or they should just take it as a learning and adjust the regulations in the future accordingly. It should be, and conceptually must be, verboten to force recalls on vehicles that were compliant and are still compliant to the regulations at the time of manufacture or sale.
        waetherman
        • 1 Year Ago
        @David MacGillis
        The goalpost has always been the same; a safe car. It's only through analysis of accident data that we can know some things, like the fact that these Jeeps have a high risk of burying in to flames when hit from behind. It's not like when a car rolls off the assembly we can say that the design is "safe" and never have to think about it again. That's why NTtSA exists.
          mikeybyte1
          • 1 Year Ago
          @waetherman
          For real? The goal post is a "safe car"? That is your regulation? "Make your car safe." Geez, talk about a wide open regulation! Does that mean everyone survives a crash at 40mph? 80mph? 120mph? Thank goodness you aren't working at NHTSA. Or are you?
          domingorobusto
          • 1 Year Ago
          @waetherman
          But they aren't particularly prone to fire. In fact, they are statistically mid to high pack amongst their peers of the time. You don't seem to realize just how many GCs were produced during that time. It was far and away the best selling SUV of the time period. And they get driven a LOT. I haven't seen a ZJ with less than 100k miles for years, and most are ell over 200k. That means that the GCs under this recall have collectively driven well over a trillion miles. And there have been maybe 50 incidents, of which a large portion are only very marginally attributable to the issue in question. That means that you have a statistically insignificant chance of ever encountering this issue. It's literally about the same chances or less of being struck by lightning. Them forcing a recall of thousands of vehicles at a ridiculously high cost to the manufacturer to fix an insignificant problem in a design that passed all the safety and design standards of the time is blatantly out of line.
          Xedicon
          • 1 Year Ago
          @waetherman
          Have some Jeeps gone up in flames? Yes. Can it be said they're prone to do so? No. Such an incredibly small percentage of Jeeps have gone up in flames that no reasonable person can claim they're unsafe in that regard. Additionally examples that the media likes to use of this happening often involve tremendous velocity / mass involved in the impact. Case in point, CNN ran a story about a ZJ going up in flames... after it got rear ended at about 60mph by a semi truck. The ZJ was also about 17 years old. Lastly the Jeep campaign is being pushed by a known fraud, Clarence Ditlow, who has a lot of access to the NHSTA. Take a read on him, he's a real piece of work: http://blogs.detroitnews.com/politics/2013/06/17/jeep-fires-recall-clarence-ditlow/
          PatrickH
          • 1 Year Ago
          @waetherman
          Hey guess what they are safe. I'd have no problem transporting my child around in one. I believe there have been less than 50 documented cases of this incident...OUT OF FIVE MILLION VEHICLES. Get that through your head, lol.
          David MacGillis
          • 1 Year Ago
          @waetherman
          If it\'s not a safe vehicle at the time of sale it can\'t be built. You can\'t turn back the clock on previous designs no matter how comparitively less safe (the jeep is by no means \"unsafe\" nor does it have any alarming propensity among peer vehcles for fuel-fed fires) a vehicle is compared to the latest hardware designed to the latest specification. If the design was somehow deficient to the standards that it was supposed to have passed or some element had caused the vehicle to become far, far, less safe then grounds would exist for a campaign to bring those vehicles back up to standard for the rest of their useful life. Campaigning vehicles that meet the standards at the time they were built to \"upgrade\" them to a knew and nebulous standard is unprecedented. It seems to be some kind of politically driven witch hunt.
      • 1 Year Ago
      [blocked]
        Jamie Elmhirst
        • 1 Year Ago
        I know. I hate scientists and all their data. They are SO OBVIOUSLY lying in droves. CO2 at over 400 PPM in the atmosphere clearly doesn't matter a whit and poses no threat to human health or ecosystem viability* * Paid for by the Koch Brothers
        Justin Campanale
        • 1 Year Ago
        Even if we're assuming that global warming is a hoax(who would you believe more, actual scientists who have dedicated their whole lives to research, or some power hungry corporations with no concern whatsoever other than their money, which is earned through crony capitalism and special treatment from our politicians in D.C.?) the fact still remains that oil is running out. Peak oil production will be around 2018, and it's only going downhill from there. Even if we opened every new-fangled pipeline possible and drilled, drilled, drilled, the oil will still run out soon. If you factor in the Earth's exponentially increasing population, it can run out well before the end of the 21st century. By 2040, we will only be able to produce 20% of the oil we currently produce. Global warming MIGHT turn out to be a fairy tale(though EVERY modern scientific journal believes it is real), but you still can't ignore that petroleum is a non-renewable resource. You can't wave a magic wand and get oil. All those dead dinosaur parts we use in our cars will run out one day. Besides, would you rather that we switch to alternate, clean energy sources, or hand out pots and pots of money to the very same Arab countries who hate us? A 550 hp, 4500 lb Audi RS7 gets 28 mpg on the highway. The average car has 1/3 the power and 2/3 the weight. Rather than hindering business, the CAFE regulations can actually spark competiton. The car companies are now changing their focus on efficiency. The auto industry seems to be in a neverending battle over MPG. And the best part is,cars nowadays aren't that much more expensive. I am normally against regulation of the market, but in this case, it actually helps. If you are so concerned about the bureaucrats in D.C." whose role is first and foremost to pass as many regulations as possible to ensure their job security.", you should also be concerned about the bureaucrats in D.C whose role is first and foremost to jump in bed with the oil companies and grant them special privileges to ensure that their pots of money grow bigger.
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Justin Campanale
          [blocked]
        Jimbo
        • 1 Year Ago
        I'm not sure whether to believe man-made global warming is happening or not. But I do know from firsthand experience that scientists and scientific publications are not nearly as altruistic as people make them out to be. Let's face it, they have a vested interest in supporting the notion of global warming. Most scientific research is supported by grants and grant money is fickle. It tends to be given to research on the hot topics of the moment. And global warming is a hot topic (no pun intended). Scientific publications are the same way. If a scientist can't get grant money, they don't have anything to publish. Without research to publish, those journals lose money. If the papers in a journal aren't of interest, subscriptions decrease and again they lose money. I'm not saying all the research and data are hogwash. But whether or not global warming is happening, it is a cash cow. And scientists and scientific publications are not immune when they need to support their livelihoods.
      Jamie Elmhirst
      • 1 Year Ago
      Why do I even read these threads. The reflexive, knee jerk anti-government nonsense is so frigging tiresome.
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