THE MYSTERIOUS WORLD OF RECALLS
Perhaps I could begin by saying that a vehicle could have anywhere from 5 000 to more than 25 000 components, each of which has to perform correctly whilst enduring some of the harshest environments on the planet, all for a few fractions of a Rand. No?
Well I guess if you’ve just invested the best part of way too much money in a vehicle which has then broken – or worse – gone up in smoke, then I guess the milk of human kindness just might have run out.
Welcome to the mysterious world of brand reputation damage limitation, otherwise known as the Land Of Recalls. You will need to see at least two publicly available web sites:
l From the mighty US of A: https://www.nhtsa.gov/recalls
l From the supine land of the United Kingdom: https://www.dft.gov.uk/vosa/apps/recalls/
First, a diversion
Way back in time when automotive production tooling was being pushed to the very limits, the US struck upon the idea of making a necessity a virtue. As the press tools for the outer skin wore out, so the ‘model life’ automatically became limited. A few relatively minor tweaks and hey presto! An ‘all new’ vehicle would appear with near enough identical substructure as well as running gear. The idea was born in the 1940s, and became the main business tool for much of the global automotive manufacturing community.
Thus it came to pass, automotive build – especially for cars – has been driven by fashion, taking advantage of those very tool changes. Some vehicle manufacturers – BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Saab and Peugeot (remember them?) for example – had vast model life cycles, spanning entire generations of human beings.
Time rolled on, the US auto industry was caught several times with its corporate trousers around the ankles (knackered over-sized ancient running gear still in production long, long after it should have been replaced…) and painfully slowly the net technology gain of vehicles began to take off from the 1980s onwards.
To keep customers focused on purchasing new vehicles the ‘American’ business model forced step changes via new model cycles every three years (typical for 1960s to 1990s) to seven years. The longer model cycles would be given a largely cosmetic update along with improved manufacturing via the all-conquering facelift, which ‘freshened’ the product, usually at mid-cycle.
Then came the event that everyone except the financial institutions that caused it recognised. The global economic downturn which had reduced companies like Ford to think about replacing light fittings in their many offices when they broke. Money was tight. Uber tight. Cost cutting included reducing the stock of spare parts held nationally, and often eliminating locally held stocks so that only fast moving service items were held.
Since 2008, financial constraints have pushed cycle times out to seven or even 11 years for most volume car manufacturers. To keep the investment in contention, numerous facelifts are used to freshen a single model cycle. In addition to this trend, the pace of new sub-system introductions and their evolution has quickened, especially in the area of electronics and software. Even if a model has an extended life cycle, it will have significantly altered and non-backwardly compatible electronic/software revisions which can happen on a sub three-year cycle.
To compound this, as vehicle manufacturers sought to get every last scrap of market no one knew existed, the proliferation of body styles/sub-models since 2008 has been matched by the increased variety of major building blocks that each vehicle can be built from. The upshot is we have a vehicle production process geared around new car purchase every two to three years, with poor support….
The product support by the vehicle manufacturer and their commercial partners is challenged because the existing business model – and hence product support – envisages regular attendance in dealerships for the life time of the vehicle. Endless stats show most new vehicles cease to go to dealerships much after the fourth year.
The independent aftermarket can access manufacturer diagnostics/software/parts information, but this is very challenging given the investments and required time when most aftermarket outlets don’t specialise in specific brands. A vehicle which effectively ceases to get ‘over air’ updates or ‘in workshop’ updates will be left in an electronic system time warp.
Economics? The electronic module suppliers work on three-year product cycles, and software can have much shorter life cycles. Presently vehicle manufacturers are supposed to provide parts for a model up to 10 years after the last one is built, but already some manufacturers are pushing this back to seven years. That’s survival.
Many of those modules are bespoke, which is a long-time automotive industry problem. Lack of common connectors and module formats ensure that as the finite stock of a given module dwindles, the retail price climbs or it becomes unavailable. For older vehicles, once a module breaks, it is cheaper to buy a whole used vehicle for the desired spares or crush the defective vehicle.
The vehicle manufacturers have to do an ‘all time buy’ once a module goes out of production to bridge a gap which could be more than 20 years (life cycle of the model plus 10 years after the last example was built). Frankly they can’t justify committing cash to parts which sit in a warehouse for up to 20 years.
The whole business model needs to change
Vehicle ownership is a luxury, and many customers have already migrated to lease or rental. Further, for many customers use of a vehicle is almost impractical in major towns/cities because of congestion – leading many to think (including most OEMs) that there will be fewer vehicles with higher rates of use via rental access bought by the hour – or even the minute.
That requires a revolution in vehicle build (much more sophisticated, much more expensive – but overhauled/refurbished over a 30-year life span instead of thrown away after 10 years due to economics – which is the very business model used for agriculture, trucks, aircraft and more. The migration towards mass fleet of hire vehicles is underway, but in it’s wake there is a huge number of vehicles caught in this technology-led mass obsolescence. Amen. Now what the heck is a recall?
Let us consider two approaches
First the United Kingdom. An agreeable, confidential chat takes place between the vehicle manufacturer or import agent to discuss issues in high confidence, via a department within Department for Transport (DfT), known as ‘TTS’. The information is carefully logged and tracked. If sufficient evidence builds, the vehicle manufacturer can formally use the vehicle registration and vehicle ownership data bases held by HM Government to contact all the owners of the affected vehicles. Or, it can perform a ‘service adjustment’ without declaring a full blown, publicly announced recall. Throughout the vehicle manufacturer remains mostly in charge of the process unless HM Government becomes alarmed. One can see this is all rather agreeably vague.
Now to the US of A. The whole trust of the arrangement is different. A vehicle manufacturer can do what they like because the relationship with state level and federal authorities is one of trust, but if the trust is undermined there is no limit to the severity of penalties that could be imposed – fines, jail, embargoes – you name it. In addition consumer law both at state and federal level is strong, so a gaggle of ‘no win, no fee’ legal types are poised to take up any cause at a moment’s notice. The gate keeper of the recall system is the NHTSA, who publish the first investigations, first complaints and if valid, the recall too.
Vehicle manufacturers don’t build a vehicle for a single country. They try to engineer a product to reach as many markets as possible. However, not all countries around the world behave this way, and so may not be aware of vehicle model ‘issues’ which have occurred elsewhere.
That’s why we need to use the NHTSA and – for vehicles not sold in the US – New Zealand/Australia/United Kingdom to check if certain problems have been seen already. Yes, issues can occur because of unusual conditions in a given country, but guess what? The vehicle, especially if it is a global product, has been developed as well as tested in all – yup, all – the worst climates already.
Those lawyer types are calling again
There have been several vehicle manufacturers who indulged in the kind of logic an insurance company would be proud of – except their customers were in perfect health before using the vehicle. Instead of fixing the problem, the cost is ‘offset’. This ranges from settling out of court to providing towbars for more than a million old SUVs built before 2005.
The issue? Say it quietly. ‘Thermal events’ Once a vehicle catches light it will be destroyed in a matter of minutes, and it is tricky to decide what the root cause was. This all came down to one celebrated case in California brought in the last 1980s, where a Porsche 911 driver lost control and blamed the vehicle. Crucially her lawyers were able to find an internal Porsche report which outlined how the pre-964 platform could snap into sudden oversteer. On that basis several large vehicle manufacturers handled their most sensitive issue by word of mouth only.
Use the web sites. They are hard work, but especially in the case of the NHTSA site, there is a wealth of information on line. Of course there is one other aspect we should consider. Social media gives a good indication of the type of faults, even if solid fact based information is all too frequently missing. A bakkie built by a well known Alliance, and recently stopped production after more than a decade, has developed an unfortunate habit of breaking the ladder chassis near the rear suspension leaf spring hangers, which is about where the pick-up body sits behind the cab.
The root cause? It seems to be a mix of corrosion (poor refinishing from build) along with fatigue (inappropriate loading on the grounds the huge exterior does not relay the weedy nature of the ladder chassis holding the whole thing together). Has there been a recall? Not in Europe. Not now, and possibly not ever.
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