More stringent auto recalls for 2015 are ‘new normal’

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau
The recall includes 420,000 vehicles in the United States and 250,000 in Canada and includes the 2010-14 CC, 2011-13 EOS, 2011-14 Golf and GTI, 2010-14 Passat and Tiguan, 2010-13 Jetta.

Washington – — If 2014 was the year of the auto recall, 2015 isn’t going to be any slouch.

U.S. automakers and other vehicle manufacturers overseen by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration already have recalled more than 32.4 million vehicles in nearly 500 campaigns through early August, according to a Detroit News analysis of government data and automaker reports.

That’s still far fewer than the 63.95 million vehicles recalled in 2014 in 803 campaigns. But it’s already topped the previous record of 30.8 million vehicles recalled in all of 2004.

Several automakers are on pace for a record-setting number of recalls. And the total number of campaigns this year could come close to last year.

A newly emboldened NHTSA has demanded recalls in several instances. In documents released Friday, Volkswagen AG disclosed the agency had demanded the recall of 420,000 cars and SUVs in the U.S. for electrical problems that can prevent air bags from inflating; VW had determined it wasn’t a safety issue.

Automakers are facing electronic issues they haven’t seen before, including Fiat Chrysler’s industry-first recall of 1.4 million vehicles because of concerns they can be hacked and controlled wirelessly.

This year’s higher-than-normal recalls also have been boosted by air bag manufacturer Takata Corp.’s decision to declare more than 32 million vehicles defective in the U.S.

More than 14 million of those already had been recalled by automakers last year because the air bag inflators can explode and throw metal shrapnel at drivers and passengers.

New NHTSA Chief Mark Rosekind caught the industry’s attention when he suggested in January that automakers could recall more vehicles in 2015 than in 2014.

‘New normal’

Sean Kane, president of Safety Research and Strategies, an auto safety advocacy group, said NHTSA’s aggressive posture is prompting carmakers to move faster.

“There is a new normal,” Kane said. “Manufacturers are becoming much more diligent about fixing things that they would have been able to get away with doing customer satisfaction or dealer bulletins that NHTSA would have accepted in past. Today, no one’s even going to cut these corners.”

The other issue, Kane said, is that the average age of vehicles has hit a new record to more than 11 years.

“As the complexity level of vehicles rises and you have vehicles driven for 11 years in harsh environments with 60 million lines of code, you expect you are going to see issues.”

Leading the pack and accounting for nearly one-third of all U.S. vehicle recalls this year is Fiat Chrysler. It has called back a company-record 10.2 million vehicles this year in 24 recall campaigns in the United States, including 77,000 new 2015 Chrysler 200s on Friday for an electrical problem that could cause stalling. About 4 million of the automaker’s callbacks are for Takata air bag inflators.

NHTSA slapped Fiat Chrysler with a $105 million fine and three years of oversight by an independent monitor for failing to properly recall vehicles in nearly two dozen campaigns over the last two years. The company has dramatically boosted the number of vehicles it has been calling back in recent months.

Last year, the company recalled 8.8 million vehicles in 2014 in 39 campaigns, which then was a record.

Fiat Chrysler spokesman Eric Mayne said the automaker has “hired additional personnel and created new positions dedicated to (recall) campaign execution. We have also taken steps to improve our parts procurement.”

In second place for callbacks this year is Honda Motor Co. — the hardest hit by the Takata recalls — with 8 million vehicles in eight recalls. That’s close to its all-time record set last year when it recalled 8.9 million vehicles in the U.S.

Toyota Motor Corp. has had 15 recalls covering 4.5 million vehicles this year, compared with 6 million in 24 campaigns last year.

Ford Motor Co. has recalled 3.8 million vehicles in 20 campaigns this year, compared with 42 campaigns covering 4.9 million vehicles last year.

Nissan Motor Co. has had 12 campaigns covering 1.7 million vehicles this year, while Hyundai/Kia have had nine campaigns covering 700,000 vehicles.

General Motors Co. — which led all automakers with a record-setting 27 million callbacks in 84 campaigns last year — is on track for a better 2015. It has recalled just 2.2 million in 26 campaigns.

GM is required to disclose potential safety issues to NHTSA before deciding on recalls as part of a $35 million consent order it signed in 2014. Earlier this year, NHTSA exercised its right to extend that requirement until at least May 2016.

More ‘muscular’ approach

Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told The Detroit News last month he wants NHTSA to be more aggressive in getting automakers to get unsafe vehicles off the roads.

He said the safety agency’s approach is going to be “much more muscular” — even though he said it was massively underfunded.

Foxx referenced the blizzard of new auto technologies and autonomous cars headed to American roads in making the case for more funding.

“NHTSA is going to have to keep up... We have the Jetsons coming into us and we have Flintstones resources,” Foxx said, referring to the fact that the agency’s defects investigation budget has fallen by 23 percent over the last decade after adjusting for inflation.

The White House has proposed tripling NHTSA’s defects budget and doubling its staffing levels.

NHTSA faulted

Foxx said the agency wasn’t going to back down from a tough stance with automakers that don’t follow the rules. He said NHTSA is going “to be pretty rigorous” to ensure that consumers are notified of recalls in a timely fashion.

“If companies fall short, they are going to hear from us.”

He said a harsh report by the Transportation Department’s inspector general’s office that he ordered — and a separate internal review — “have galvanized the new leadership of the agency to really drill down and start making necessary changes, and the process of making changes is not always as much fun.”

The report found NHTSA failed repeatedly over a decade to discover GM’s ignition switch defect that’s linked to nearly 400 deaths and injuries.

It found NHTSA failed to carefully review safety issues, hold automakers accountable for safety lapses, carefully collect safety data, or properly train or supervise staff. And it says the agency rejected most staff requests to open investigations into suspected defects.