A Tale of 51 Million Recalls

The phrase “recalled to life” is a recurring theme In Charles Dickens’ classic novel "A Tale of Two Cities." It’s used to signify resurrection, hope, commitment to change and justice. A similar call to action may be needed to rectify today’s abysmal automotive recall system.

Automakers recalled an all-time high of 51.3-million vehicles in 900 separate campaigns (also a record) in the United States last year. It was the second straight record-setting year for recalls, edging past 2014’s tally of just under 51-million units in 804 campaigns.

At the same time, the number of fatalities on U.S. roads last year increased for the first time since 2008, despite ongoing safety advances. There were 26,000 deaths through the first nine months of 2015 (full-year results aren’t due until spring), which is a 9.3 percent increase over the same period in 2014.

The purpose of recalls is to quickly identify and fix potential problems as early as possible to prevent or minimize accidents. Ideally, carmakers, suppliers, regulators, dealers and consumers would collaborate for the greater good of saving lives. In reality, the process is more dysfunctional than a Greek tragedy, King Henry VIII or a modern celebrity marriage breaking bad.

The expanding number of recalls is attributed to several factors, including the trend toward high-volume platforms, sharing components across multiple vehicle lines—and, in some cases, between companies—fewer suppliers and the use of increasingly complex electronic features. More nefarious factors include cost and regulatory pressures, shoddy engineering, greed, ineptitude and the seemingly inevitable cover-ups.

Volkswagen is the new poster child for all of the above, with its diesel emissions cheating scandal epitomizing corporate malfeasance. Its recall process is just beginning, so its numbers will show up in the 2016 tally. The probable size of the VW recall, however, is dwarfed by the even more massive one involving defective airbag inflators supplied by Japan’s Takata Corp. The problem, which has been linked to at least 10 fatalities and 139 injuries, has spurred the recall of some 40-million vehicles—more than half of which are in the U.S.—from a dozen automakers worldwide over the last 9 years.

Takata still hasn’t determined the root design flaw, which can cause the inflators to explode during a crash. But an independent panel found several factors that have exacerbated the situation, including “significant” shortcomings in Takata’s management practices, product design and production processes, as well as its procedures for dealing with quality concerns.

Last November the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) fined Takata $200-million for misleading regulators and customers about the defective inflators. The agency also has issued hefty fines and penalties against Fiat Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Honda and Toyota for various transgressions in recent years. But the problems persist.

While the recent wave of high-profile blunders has increased pressure on carmakers and regulators to handle safety issues more effectively, NHTSA notes that huge recalls and fines aren’t the solution. True safety improvements, it says, will require a major cultural shift—or perhaps a revolution—and greater cooperation and transparency throughout the industry.

For now, there’s plenty of the blame cake to go around. NHTSA, which was created as the Department of Transpor-tation’s safety arm in 1970, itself has come under fire. An independent audit released last year took the agency to task for doing a poor job on data collecting, training and inconsistent procedures that severely limit its ability to identify and correct safety issues.

Based on the analysis, NHTSA has vowed to improve information sharing between its departments, increase the number of safety investigations and question assumptions. The agency, which is seeking significant budget and personnel increases, also aims to gain a better understanding of new technologies by working more closely with industry experts.

Following a recent industry summit, NHTSA announced a series of new initiatives in partnership with 18 automakers and promised to take a more proactive approach to safety. While these seem like steps in the right direction, similar pledges have been made before following other crises, without long-term success. Let’s hope that this time around is a true recall to life for everyone. 

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With more than 25 years of experience, Steve Plumb has covered every aspect of the auto industry as an industry writer, editor and marketing professional. He was the founding editor of AutoTech Daily and rejoined the AutoBeat team in 2015. He previously was the editorial director for a leading public relations company.