As many can surmise from the stream of bad news flowing from Detroit and Japan, 2014 was not a good year for auto-manufactures, vehicle parts suppliers, federal regulators or for the consumers who drive the vehicles manufactured by the major automakers. Auto manufacturers reputation for producing safe vehicles took severe hits due to fallout from continued safety problems — like Toyota’s unintended acceleration glitch — and the new 2014 safety defects that includes the GM ignition switch recall and Takata airbag defect. Likewise, parts suppliers like Delphi and Takata found themselves uncomfortably under the spotlight also due to the same vehicle problems. Federal regulators were also burned several times by standing by the companies the agency is supposed to regulate only to discover that these companies may have withheld information or provided incomplete safety testing data. This situation has resulted in the realization for many motorists that they and their family may not be as safe in their vehicle as the manufacturer claims.
The Expanded Takata Airbag Recall
Last week automaker FCA (formerly Fiat and Chrysler, respectively)announced the expansion of its Takata airbag recall from being limited to the nearly 400,000 vehicles in high-humidity climates, to a nation-wide recall that will impact approximately 3.3 million vehicles. The announcement saw FCA join Ford, Honda, others who also announced an expanded Takata airbag recall. Affected FCA cars and trucks include vehicles produced between the years 2004 and 2007 and includes the following models:
- Dodge Magnum station wagons
- Dodge Ram 1500, 2500 and 3500 pickups
- Dodge Ram 3500 Chassis Cabs
- Mitsubishi Raider pick-ups
- Dodge Durango SUVs
- Chrysler Aspen SUVs
- Chrysler 300 sedans
- Dodge Charger sedans
- Dodge Dakota pickups
However, in a public statement, the company made clear that no particular instance of the defect had been discovered in the products affected by the recall, but the recall was being ordered due to an abundance of caution. The statement, in part, stated “Neither FCA US nor Takata Corporation, the supplier, has identified a defect in this population of inflators. These components also are distinct from Takata inflators cited in fatalities involving other automakers. More than 1,000 laboratory tests have been performed on these components. All deployed as intended, but FCA US continues to study the suspect inflators, which are not used in the Company’s current production vehicles.”
Chrysler has stated that it will still prioritize areas where high humidity is present, but it will provide parts for all affected owners. These measures, however, may be complicated by Takata Corporation’s failure to, itself, expand the recall despite pressure from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and legislators.
Ignition Switch Defect, Exploding Airbags Leading Reasons for Auto Recall Record in 2014
The previous auto-recall record was set in 2004 when approximately 30.8 million vehicles were recalled by NHTSA. As of Saturday, December 20th, there had been more than 60 million auto safety recalls in 2014. In light of the date of the tally where more than 10 days remain in the year, it is extremely likely that the total will continue to increase. This tally not only sets the record for auto recalls in a single year, it also marks the first time in history the safety recalls have surpassed 60 million vehicles. While many auto safety issues have contributed to this total, the GM ignition switch recall and the Takata recalls are, by far, the largest. Other contributions to the record include:
- GM ignition switch recall – The GM ignition switch recall resulted in at least 71 separate recall notices that impacted nearly 27 million vehicles in the United States. The Delphi-produced ignition switches affected vehicles including many of GM’s most popular models, Chevrolets, Buicks, Cadillacs, and many other vehicles. The GM ignition switch recall may fundamentally change NHTSA’s approach to auto safety as this debacle showed that early warning reporting (EWR) was not effective as currently implemented.
- Toyota unintended acceleration defect – While the Toyota defect was first reported back in 2009, it has continued to plague the automaker. An additional recall was announced in September 2014 due to “low-speed surging” present in Toyota Corollas produced between 2006 and 2010 equipped with a throttle-control system called ETCS-i.
- Takata exploding airbag defect – While this recall was initially limited to only those areas with a high relative humidity, the recall has been expanded to cover the entire nation. The injuries produced by this particular defect can be both fatal and gruesome. In several instances of this defect, police initially suspected a violent attack on the driver due to the severe lacerations to the face and neck caused by the exploding airbag. Vehicles potentially equipped with defective, exploding Takata airbags include those produced by Acura, BMW, Dodge, Ford, Honda, Lexus, Nissan, Saab, Subaru and many others.
- Trinity ET-Plus Guardrails – While this is not strictly a vehicle defect, the unapproved and unreported changes that were made to these guardrail parts nevertheless affect the safety of motorists. Further, this incident reflects the ineffectiveness of federal regulators who are deferential and accept the explanations and justifications to the companies they are overseeing at face value.
The foregoing captures only the largest of the numerous vehicle defects that contributed to 2014’s new record for vehicle safety recalls. There were many other auto safety problems, like the nearly 500,000 vehicles recalled by Volkswagen due to a defect that could result in loss of control, that would have received greater attention if not for the massive GM and Takata recalls.
Will 2015 Bring Improved Vehicle Safety To Us Drivers?
Predictions are always difficult. However, if we look towards trends and attitudes in how auto safety and vehicle recalls are likely to be handled we can draw some conclusions. In essence, whether 2015 will bring improvements to auto safety for American consumers will largely be dependent on the political winds in Washington. If public pressure and the political will is maintained, it is likely NHTSA will continue on its course towards demanding greater accountability and providing reduced deference to auto manufacturers.
In a scenario where improving auto safety and correcting the slow defect response times remains in focus, NHTSA is likely to continue wielding its subpoena power and its other investigative and enforcement tools. We should note that if NHTSA continues or expand its renewed commitment to asking tough questions of manufacturers, recall numbers may continue to increase. However, these short-run increases in raw recall numbers will undoubtedly be justified by removing unsafe vehicles from the roadways through both present actions and through the heightened regulatory expectations. However, should auto safety concerns again fade to the background it is conceivable that federal regulators could return to a more deferential approach like the one initially utilized in Takata airbag recall and the Trinity ET-Plus guardrail recall? The safest conclusion to draw from auto safety in 2014 is that public outrage over safety concerns and public interest in the process can have a real impact and can affect how federal officials in Washington approach their job.