Automotive Assembly / Columns / The Editorial / Test and Inspection Assembly

What's Behind the Epidemic of Automotive Recalls?

Massive recalls are fast becoming the norm in the auto industry. Automakers recalled 21.9 million cars and trucks in the United States last year, a nine-year high. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, automakers initiated 632 separate vehicle recalls in 2013, up 9 percent from 2012.

Chrysler initiated the most recalls, with 36. Mazda had the fewest, with two. Toyota recalled the most vehicles—5.3 million in 15 separate recalls. Mercedes-Benz recalled the fewest vehicles, with 747.

Worse yet, 2014 isn’t starting too well. On March 31, Nissan issued a recall of nearly a million vehicles, including 544,000 Altima sedans, because the front passenger-side air bag might not deploy in a crash. It was the fifth huge recall for automakers this year. Earlier, General Motors recalled 1.6 million older Chevrolet Cobalts, Saturn Ions and other small cars, citing a defective ignition switch that it has linked to 12 deaths. (That recall is now the subject of investigations over why it took more than a decade for GM to act on a problem it had been alerted to.) The ignition switch recall comes on the heels of another GM callback, this time for 1.3 million sport utility vehicles with an air bag malfunction. Honda and Toyota also announced large recalls.

Recalls have become so frequent that consumers may even be starting to hear cries of “wolf.” A recent insurance company survey found that 30 percent to 40 percent of consumers don’t even respond to recall notices. That’s an alarming statistic considering that recall repairs are free.

Ironically, the recall epidemic comes at a time when North American automakers have seemingly reversed their reputation for inferior quality. Last year, for example, GM became the first Detroit 3 automaker to top an annual J.D. Power survey of initial quality, and the company’s redesigned 2014 Chevrolet Impala was named Consumer Reports’ top-rated sedan.

So what’s going on? One contributing factor is that automotive designs now have more parts in common. That saves OEMs money, but it also forces them to recall many more vehicles when something goes wrong with a shared part.

Other reasons are more insidious. One consultant we spoke with believes OEMs and their suppliers aren’t doing enough reliability testing. “Reliance on CAD and CAM software has overtaken practical testing and development programs,” he says. “As a test procedure and problem resolution professional, I have had great difficulty persuading anyone that physical testing of a product should take priority over software.”

Another expert—the quality manager at a Tier 1 supplier—believes Tier 2 suppliers simply don’t have the resources to follow the production part approval process as set forth by the Automotive Industry Action Group years ago.

 Whatever the reasons, we hope OEMs and their suppliers get their quality houses in order—soon. 

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