Recall Redux

Recall Redux

If you've been following my column every month, you will remember a recent story about how our long-term Honda Pilot left my family stranded at the side of a deserted Utah highway. The mechanical failure came as the direct result of a recall issue, this one involving a timing belt that rubs against the engine's water pump and (if not addressed in time) causes the belt to snap — leaving you stranded on a deserted Utah highway if that happens to be where you are when the belt breaks.

As annoying as this incident was, I have tried to keep in mind a few automotive facts:

  1. Automobiles are mass-produced items consisting of thousands of individual parts.
  2. Any time something is mass-produced, a few "bad apples" are going to make it into customer hands.

In other words, expecting any new vehicle to be 100 percent defect-free is simply unrealistic. Or, to paraphrase an even more prophetic statement: stuff happens. Some automakers have a better record at avoiding recalls than others, but none has a perfect record.

Sometimes the "stuff" that happens is related to a supplier that was supposed to build a given part for a vehicle. The part gets built, but it doesn't meet the automaker's specs (this was the case in the Pilot's recall, where the water pump casting process was not to spec, causing water pumps produced by that supplier to rub against the timing belt). Sometimes the "stuff" is related to a factory assembly process, as when specific gap tolerances for two components, or the torque specifications for a given bolt, are improperly set by factory workers. Sometimes the "stuff" is a result of crash testing that shows a given component is not reacting properly during a severe impact. This was the case with Toyota's all-new 2004 Sienna minivan. During recent crash tests by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Sienna's gas tank ruptured after hitting an offset frontal barrier at 40 mph. The rupture could lead to a fuel leak and subsequent fire or explosion.

Thankfully, no injuries have been reported, and Toyota is working to notify owners and replace the fuel tanks. While we have a 2004 Toyota Sienna in our long-term fleet, I didn't hear of this recall through any factory notification. Instead, my wife told me, in a near panic, during a recent family vacation. She had just seen a report about the recall on the evening news, and for some reason she found the idea of a recall notice for a vehicle we happened to be driving — on a family trip — unsettling. I immediately checked the Maintenance Guide and was able to assure her that "it's only a problem if we get into a serious accident."

"And what happens if we get into a serious accident?"

"Ah, well, the fuel tank could rupture and explode."

Suddenly, a busted timing belt didn't seem so bad to her.

During the same week that I learned of our Sienna's recall, I also heard about a Ford Explorer/Mercury Mountaineer recall involving almost 1.7 million vehicles. The specific issue related to faulty driver seat bolts that could fail and cause the seat to recline unexpectedly — likely causing a loss of vehicle control.

When you look at the above-mentioned recalls, you realize that none of them is a huge issue in and of itself. A slight water pump casting problem that rubs on a timing belt. A single bolt that may fracture in the driver seat. Even the Sienna's fuel tank problem requires a severe impact to become an issue, and then the tank "might" rupture and "may" cause a fire. But carmakers know that today's possible safety issue is tomorrow's tragic headline. The Ford/Firestone debacle made that abundantly clear. The last thing Toyota wants is a brand-new minivan that catches fire and kills a young family.

In a world where carmakers are trying to cut costs at every corner, it should be noted that recalls cost the industry millions of dollars every year. Some of the domestic car companies have gotten brutal with their suppliers over cost issues. Demands for across-the-board price reductions, and sometimes even retroactive price cuts, are not uncommon. Yet it's these suppliers who can ultimately torpedo the success of a vehicle if one or more of the parts they produce fail. The Pilot's water pump, the Explorer's seat bolt and the Sienna's fuel tank all came from an outside supplier, and each is a potential CNN story waiting to happen if a rash of accidents and deaths occur as a result of part failure.

We've all heard the old saying about "penny-wise and pound-foolish." As I stated before, even under the best of circumstances there's no way to avoid defects in a complex, mass-produced product.

But the growing animosity between the domestic automakers and their suppliers is creating an atmosphere that is far from being a "best of" situation. This could prove far costlier than any amount of money saved by mistreating their suppliers.

Here's to hoping the domestics don't feel "foolish" a few years from now.

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