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Top 13 In 2013, #8: Automakers Suffer From Recall Fever

Wed, 12/11/2013 - 1:00pm
Joel Hans, Managing Editor, Manufacturing.net

Between December 9 and December 21, we'll be counting down the 13 biggest stories on Manufacturing.net throughout 2013. From pig problems (see below), to Tesla's on fire, and being held captive in China, we'll be looking into just why these stories resonated with readers here and elsewhere. For the full list, updated daily at 1:00pm EST until the 21st, visit the Top 13 In 2013 page.


As we discussed in the first episode of the Automotive Insights video series, many outside the manufacturing world probably think that in the aftermath of Toyota’s “sudden unintended acceleration” issues beginning in 2009, in which they would end up recalling millions of vehicles, the automotive industry would have implemented better quality standards. And while these companies are, admittedly, using new technology and more thorough innovation on the plant floor in order to make better-quality paint, or ensure a certain weld meets specification again and again, there is one truth that Manufacturing.net readers returned to throughout 2013: There are still far too many vehicle recalls.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but rather the certain recalls that prompted the most reader interest throughout the year.

First off, in early March Subaru recalled 47,000 cars for a flaw in the wireless key fobs that could start the start the engine all on its own. The motor would then run for up to 15 minutes, but it might be restarted due to the same flaw, which would mean it would continue starting and shutting down until the car runs out of gas or the fob battery dies. The company warned that if parked in a garage, there was a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Just a few days later, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced it was checking into complaints about the Chevrolet Malibu from 2004 to 2011 and the Saturn Aura from 2007 to 2009. This time? Brake lights that would not illuminate when the driver pressed the brake pedal, or brake lights that would turn on at random times. GM had already recalled 8,000 cars in 2009 to fix a problem related to corrosion in a wiring connector, but NHTSA seemed to believe both models were suffering from the same issues.

In early April Hyundai and Kia simultaneously announced they were recalling 1.9 million vehicles for problems with air bags and brake light switches. The affected model list was lengthy: Hyundai’s Accent, Elantra, Genesis Coupe, Santa Fe, Sonata, Tucson and Veracruz, plus Kia's Optima, Rondo, Sedona, Sorento, Soul and Sportage — all from the 2007 through 2011 model years.

Perhaps the biggest story, however, was the showdown between Chrysler, and its Jeep brand, against the NHTSA. The government said that 51 people had suffered fiery deaths inside of Jeep Grand Cherokees and Libertys with gas tanks mounted behind the rear axles, and wanted Chrysler to recall 2.7 million vehicles to fix that problem. Chrysler rebutted the request, insisting that the cars in question — Cherokees from 1993 through 2004 and Libertys from 2002 through 2007, were safe.

The company’s refusal to comply with the voluntary recall was a rare break from the status quo. In a letter, Chrysler said it “does not agree with NHTSA's conclusions and does not intend to recall the vehicles. The subject vehicles are safe and are not defective.” It also claimed that NHTSA’s conclusion came from a flawed dataset, and that all the affected vehicles were designed and manufactured to the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards. The company concluded: “Our analysis shows the incidents, which are the focus of this request, occur less than once for every million years of vehicle operation. This rate is similar to comparable vehicles produced and sold during the time in question.”

Just a few days after that refusal, however, the company recalled 630,000 Jeeps to fix flaws with air bags, seat-belts and transmission fluid leaks. Of course, this didn’t do much to inspire confidence among Jeep Grand Cherokee owners about the safety of their vehicles, or the value of Chrysler’s claims.

In the end, Chrysler and the NHTSA worked together to recall 1.56 million of the requested 2.7 million Jeeps. The remaining vehicles were to be covered under a “customer service action” and may very well never be fixed. Many believe the company came around after realizing it was on the precipice of a public relations disaster. A former NHTSA administrator under President Bush said, “They have some very smart people at Chrysler and probably looked into a crystal ball and didn't think this would end the way they wanted it to.”

Of course, we didn’t even cover Toyota recalling vehicles over spiders, Ford recalling the Escape one too many times, and many more. 2014 is likely to be another exciting year for those at the NHTSA.

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