The biblical figure Job was noted for his patience, but in fairness, he never had to endure a major motor vehicle recall.
Auto recalls in the United States set records in both 2014 (50.98 million) and 2015 (51.25 million), according to federal officials, and massive car-fixing efforts have made headlines worldwide throughout 2016. That includes Volkswagen’s diesel emissions-cheating technology scandal and the sweeping recall of Takata air bag inflators, affecting millions of motor vehicles on roadways in California and nationwide.
Robert Carr, a 74-year-old retiree in Galt, says he and his wife have been stressed trying to get answers on their 2014 Volkswagen Passat TDI, which is among the vehicles on the Takata recall list.
The good news is that, for the most part, automakers today jump on the recall process as soon as possible. … The bad news is that recalls of millions of vehicles can take a long time.
Len Brewster, a Detroit-based auto industry analyst.
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Carr says he’s paying more than $400 a month for a car his wife is “petrified to drive … and I don’t blame her because you’re always worried about the air bag suddenly blowing up.”
Carr says automotive experts offer widely varying advice on whether it’s safe to drive the car. Most of all, he said, he’s been frustrated in his attempts to get answers from Volkswagen, which informed car owners driving models under the Takata recall that they would receive a notification from the automaker by the end of April. Carr said he has not yet received a letter.
Last week, the NHTSA expanded the recall of Takata air bag inflators by an estimated 35 million to 40 million, on top of 28.8 million inflators previously recalled. The NHTSA called it “the largest and most complex safety recall in U.S. history.”
On the Volkswagen website, a question about whether the affected vehicles are safe to drive refers to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration administrator saying in May 2015 that VW owners should take their vehicles in for service “as soon as they are notified that the parts are available and … they should continue to drive their vehicles until then.”
“That doesn’t help,” Carr said. “Right now, the parts are not available and it might be a long time before they are. I’m not sure people are aware of how bad these recalls can be.”
“It can be an ordeal, especially if it’s a major recall,” said Len Brewster, a Detroit-based auto industry analyst. “The good news is that, for the most part, automakers today jump on the recall process as soon as possible. That wasn’t always true. Years ago, they fought hard to avoid recalls.
“The bad news is that recalls of millions of vehicles can take a long time as notification letters are sent out, parts produced and shipped, and work time is set up at dealership service departments.”
The U.S. Department of Transportation says a recall is issued when a manufacturer or the NHTSA determines that a vehicle or a vehicle component “creates an unreasonable safety risk or fails to meet minimum safety standards.” Under a formal recall, the manufacturer is required to notify owners of the affected vehicles and fix the problem for free.
Federal officials say vehicle owners receiving a recall notice should follow instructions to the letter and “immediately” contact the dealer to set up an appointment. However, that might bring little satisfaction as dealerships typically have to wait for necessary parts to be shipped to them. In extensive recalls, that could take months.
Extended delays can try the patience of not only consumers, but dealers as well.
David Rodgers, senior vice president and general manager of the John L. Sullivan Automotive Group, which includes John L. Sullivan Chevrolet and Roseville Toyota in the Roseville Automall, claims that “the biggest challenge is the suppliers and the amount of time it takes to make that many components or devices in a limited period of time. So, a lot of it comes down to supply and demand.”
There are other variables.
For example, owners of 1997-2004 Pontiac Grand Prix sedans received recall notices last year from General Motors, warning of the possibility of an under-hood fire as a result of engine oil dripping onto the hot surface of the exhaust manifold. The fix was to replace the engine’s front valve cover and gasket.
However, Pontiac produced its last car in January 2010, so the Pontiac fix was farmed out to other GM dealerships. Locally, that included John L. Sullivan Chevrolet.
Some of the world’s top automakers have been involved in huge vehicle recalls in recent years.
In 2014, General Motors recalled millions of autos to fix faulty ignition switches that were linked to a disputed number of deaths. That same year, Toyota recalled millions of autos to fix various problems, including air bags that might not inflate. The automaker was also slapped with a record $1.2 billion fine from the U.S. Justice Department related to the company’s alleged efforts to cover up vehicle flaws in an earlier recall.
Yet those setbacks seemed to have had little impact on sales, which analysts said is likely a byproduct of vehicle recalls being so common today.
In 2014, GM sold nearly 3 million new vehicles in the United States, up 5 percent from 2013. Despite a flurry of recalls, Toyota has kept its No. 1 world ranking and leads California in new car sales, with more than 20 percent of the statewide market, according to the Sacramento-based California New Car Dealers Association.
“GM and Toyota have carried on just fine … but we’ve entered an age of super-complicated fixes,” analyst Brewster said.
Last month, Volkswagen AG’s latest move to deal with the diesel-emissions cheating crisis that rocked VW in September was agreeing to offer U.S. owners of approximately 500,000 vehicles a mix of car buybacks, vehicle repairs and extensive compensation. That still leaves owners of affected VW diesels up in the air as U.S. government officials said significant details of the deal still need to be hammered out.
And just last week, the Takata recall blew up anew, to an epic level.
On Wednesday, the NHTSA dramatically expanded the recall of Takata air bag inflators, saying ruptures had been tied to 10 deaths and more than 100 injuries nationwide. The expanded action requires the Japanese company to recall an estimated 35 million to 40 million air bag inflators, on top of 28.8 million inflators previously recalled. The recall is to take place in phases by December 2019.
The NHTSA called it “the largest and most complex safety recall in U.S. history.”
Multiple investigators concluded that inflators inside Takata’s front air bags can explode with too much force and spew shrapnel inside the vehicle. Investigators said the chemical used to ignite the Takata air bags, ammonium nitrate, can degrade after long-term exposure to “environmental moisture” and high temperatures. This can cause the inflators to become over-pressurized and rupture during air bag deployment. Officials noted that Takata did not use a drying agent that can counteract the effects of moisture.
Karl Brauer, senior analyst for Irvine-based Kelley Blue Book, said “the scope of the recall far exceeds any previous automotive defect and likely will take years to fully address. Affected consumers can expect a wait time from a few months to a few years, a troubling time frame given the potentially deadly nature of these air bags.
“It’s hard to imagine Takata surviving this recall, but if the company fails it will only lengthen the time it takes to resolve this issue.”
GETTING NO SATISFACTION?
Consumer options: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration advises consumers who are concerned about an auto safety defect or problem with manufacturers or dealers to file a report with NHTSA.
How do I file a report?: Go to safecar.gov and click on the “File A Complaint” link to access a basic form that takes about five minutes to fill out.
Have the facts: Consumers filing complaints with the NHTSA should have the following information in hand before filling out the complaint form: your email address, your vehicle identification number (it’s on your registration document), the year/make/model of the vehicle, and any supporting documentation (such as photos or a police report).
Other options: Motorists without an email address or online access can file a complaint with NHTSA by calling 888-327-4236; people who are deaf or hard of hearing can access a text display at 800-424-9153. Also, a wealth of recall tips and real-time recall information can be found at the “Vehicle Safety” link on the NHTSA home page – nhtsa.gov.
Sources: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Bee research