The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration maintains a website that lets users track how many motor vehicle recalls there have been this month. As I am writing this, there have already been 17 in November. As the graphs below show, there have been an increasing number of recalls in recent years affecting an increasing number of vehicles. Those graphs come from an Automotive News article (Despite quality improvements, costly safety issues continue to dog automakers, Oct 28) that gets to an interesting question: If the general quality of cars has improved, why are there so many more recalls? It’s an interesting question, and there are several factors involved in answering it. One, of course, is regulatory. Recalls don’t just happen in a vacuum; they involve an interplay between automakers and the Feds. A more aggressive stance by regulators can result in more recalls. A second consideration is that the carmaker’s point of view has also evolved. Dragging feet on a potential safety hazard could prove to be a PR nightmare and a potential legal issue. An automaker may find it better to be out in front of an issue as opposed to be solely on the defensive. Why might they be on the defensive? Because it is now much easier to find out about problems with cars (and nearly every other problem out there).
“Consumers have ways to complain that they didn’t have before,” said Kane, whose clients include trial lawyers for car owners. “We have access, electronically and instantly, to a global network that wasn’t available in the early ’90s. The manufacturer no longer controls the narrative entirely, and I think that’s a major factor in why problems get addressed more often now.”
Finally, there is an issue with the cars themselves. They are a lot more complicated than they use to be.
Sean Kane, president of Safety Research & Strategies Inc., a Massachusetts consulting firm, said there are other reasons why recalls are a persistent problem: Cars are more complex, he says, so there are more components that can fail. Automakers and regulators also have better data to analyze patterns that may point to a problem. … With more of a vehicle’s basic safety functions controlled by chips, cameras and sensors, the risks of a potential software glitch could grow.
So what can automakers do about this? That gets to another Automotive News article “track-and-trace” systems (How data mining helped GM limit a recall to 4 cars, Oct 28). Automakers and their suppliers are relying on data tracking built into their production processes to follow where parts come from and where they go. Here is how the article describes the basics of these programs.
Step 1: A supplier gives a component a unique bar code or radio-frequency tag. Step 2: The component gets scanned at each point in assembly, generating data on how it was built. Step 3: After being delivered to the automaker, the component is linked to the identification number of the vehicle in which it is installed. Step 4: The automaker scans the component on the assembly line, in case an assembly problem emerges later. Step 5: If a defect is found, the automaker and supplier trace the defective part or assembly problem to the VINs of all other affected cars.
The article says that an average car has 15,000 components and at GM track-and-trace has started with the large, big-ticket items (e.g., transmissions) but is now moving down to smaller items. So they’ve got all this data. Now they are learning how to use it and it is making a real difference.
Maureen Foley-Gardner, director of field performance evaluation at GM, said the automaker has used its database for 20 percent of field actions this year, up from 5 percent in 2012, and watched as the average action has shrunk by 40 percent. “It has become crystal clear to me that it’s having an impact,” Foley-Gardner said. … In one case this year, GM found that a defective transmission clutch plate was causing an annoying rattling in the Chevrolet Camaro. The company found the 18 affected cars quickly enough that 10 were still on dealership lots.
This seems like an excellent response to the financial need to limit recalls. On the one hand, it gives a way to focus effort on recalls and only call back those vehicles with the problem — spear fishing, if you will, not sending out a trawler. On the other hand, track-and-trace promotes better understanding of process performance. That is, the potential benefits go beyond more manageable recalls but should also lead to process improvement on multiple dimensions.