Automakers More Proactive on Recalls

Recall logoAutomakers have recalled millions of vehicles worldwide in recent weeks, but that doesn’t mean the quality of cars and trucks is declining.

In fact, industry experts say these recalls are a sign that quality is improving.

High-profile problems, such as Toyota Motor Corp.’s issues with unintended acceleration in 2010, have prompted automakers to become far more aggressive in identifying potential problems and notifying consumers when they find them.

“Protecting your reputation is really at the forefront of everybody’s mind,” said Fred Thomas, industry director at Apriso Corp., which makes software that helps manufacturers’ track and control quality. “Nobody is waiting for the federal government to tell them to do something. I think that is probably one of the lessons that came out of Toyota. There is a real focus on driving the highest level of quality while, at the same time, trying to minimize liability.”

Toyota was criticized by lawmakers in the United States for failing to notify consumers after discovering potential problems with unintended acceleration in Japan — until a fatal car crash in California brought the problems to light.

Toyota recalled 510,000 vehicles this month to correct a potential problem with air bags that it said affected about 170,000 vehicles.

“At Toyota, nothing is more important to us than the safety and reliability of our vehicles. Our voluntary recalls are an example of our commitment to standing by our products and being responsive to our customers,” said spokeswoman Cindy Knight. “Our goal is to help ensure that Toyota drivers are completely confident in the safety and reliability of their vehicles.”

In February, Chrysler Group LLC recalled almost 2,000 cars to find and fix 16 vehicles that had damaged fuel tank control valves.

“If you actually index the number of vehicles being recalled, it’s going down, but the number of recalls is going up,” said analyst Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics LLP. “You’re having more recalls than you had before, but far fewer cars are being affected.”

Chrysler’s six most recent recalls involved a total of just 264,000 vehicles, and none of them was associated with a single accident or injury.

“They’re being more sensitive,” Hall said. “The whole idea is to get ahead of it before it gets to (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). Before, companies would do a recall when NHTSA said to do a recall.”

Chrysler is being particularly aggressive, he added, because it is working to overcome years of poor quality and re-establish its credibility with consumers.

“Chrysler Group LLC is continually testing and monitoring vehicle performance to find and address issues before our customers experience them,” said Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne. “Two of our most recent recalls were initiated before a single customer complaint was received.”

Software developed by companies such Apriso makes it easier for automakers to do that.

According to Thomas, “Most of the automakers and suppliers believe if we wait for the government to jump in, we’re already too late.” Those that wait to recall vehicles until NHTSA tells them to, he added, become the bad guy, while companies that initiate their own recalls are seen in a more positive light. “People are smart enough to see a recall not just as a negative, but as something proactive on a company’s part.”

He said the increasingly interconnected nature of the global automobile business is also responsible for raising the number of recalls: Automakers are using the same vehicle platforms for more products in more markets around the world, and they are building those vehicles with the same components used by other manufacturers.

“Now, a small problem at one plant can become a global issue,” Thomas said. “It’s great for leveraging economies of scale, but it creates a situation on the defect side where you’ve got to be that much more vigilant.”

This month, for example, six automakers recalled 3.4 million vehicles worldwide because they all shared the same potentially faulty air bag, produced by Takata Corp.

The Japanese supplier, whose U.S. headquartersis in Auburn Hills, said the problem was primarily caused by a faulty manufacturing process at its factory in Moses Lake, Wash.

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