WHILE car manufacturers continue to recall millions of vehicles every year, for the most part, recalls go unreported because they're minor and relatively inexpensive to resolve.
Some make an impact due to the sheer number of cars involved, others because of the specific details. Who will forget Nissan's recent recall initiated when the steering wheel came away in the hands of a Finnish Qashqai driver?
In the US around 14.5 million cars were sold last year but over 14.3 million current and past models were recalled during 2012. Over 17 million cars were recalled in Europe in 2011.
Occasionally, however, a vehicle recall becomes a serious issue for car makers, as it did in 2009 for Toyota when 1.3 million Toyota's worldwide were recalled because of seat- belt and exhaust problems. A further 700,000 cars were recalled over fears of a fire risk in the window electrics. By the end of the year, Toyota had recalled 3.8 million more cars due to the risk that the driver's side floor mat could jam the accelerator. In 2010, Toyota was forced to stop production of eight models in the US and it is estimated the worldwide recall cost €1.4bn.
In Ireland, car companies instigate recalls directly rather than relying on any external body. In the US, the National Highway Traffic System Administration (NHTSA) uses its power to force manufacturers into action if it believes a car has a safety problem, but in Ireland the onus is on the manufacturer to instigate a recall. The National Consumer Agency website does record the number of recalls and outlines details of each. A glance through the list for 2012 reveals that recalls occur across a broad spectrum of manufacturers. In one month alone, as many as 34,000 vehicles on our roads were subject to a voluntary recall by Toyota which was forced to issue its second such recall in a month.
Other vehicle makers with recalls include Honda, which has recalled 2,126 CRV vehicles built between 2002 and 2006 due to problems with the power window switch that could potentially cause fire.
Nissan recalled 1,259 X-Trail vehicles, manufactured between November 2006 and April 2012, because of a potential problem that could lead to smoke emitting from the engine compartment.
A BMW recall affected 5-Series and 6-Series models built between 2003 and 2010 over a potential problem with a battery cable cover in the boot and involved about 8,500 Irish BMW owners.
So what are recalls and when is a recall not a recall?
There are subtle differences between "campaigns" and "recalls". From the consumers' point of view, the differences between the two are more a matter of semantics, but one is more serious than the other. A recall requires the manufacture to contact the owners of the affected cars, whereas a campaign is non-urgent work that can be carried out when the car is next being serviced.
Why do recalls occur?
From toys to seat belts, vehicle and other product recalls occur monthly and continue to be a fact of life. The demand for better fuel efficiency and improved driving dynamics coupled with the increased software content in each car makes it virtually impossible to test for every potential problem.
In addition, the trend to squeeze as many vehicles from the same platform is likely to be contributing to the rise in recalls.
Manufacturers that we spoke to about this issue stressed that recalls are part of an on-going quality monitoring processes related to all aspects of production, driveability and long-term reliability. Ian Corbett, marketing operations manager at Toyota Ireland, stressed that "it is important to remember that when a large number of vehicles are recalled, it does not mean there is a problem with every vehicle, in fact usually in the order of 0.03 per cent of vehicles will actually be affected."
What to do if you car is recalled?
When this happens, the car maker will alert owners, in writing, to the problem and offer a free repair. Michael Nugent, marketing manager for BMW Ireland, outlines the process BMW employs when a recall notice is issued. "Once a recall is announced we get a list of chassis numbers of cars included which were supplied to the Irish market. Typically we can reach the majority of the owners through the dealers' sales and service records".
"We contact the customers and ask them to bring the car to our dealer to have the remedial work undertaken. If we don't know who the owner is, we can ask the authorities to supply the latest owner's details and then make contact."
Similarly in Nissan Ireland's case "when a vehicle is presented for any given recall, service campaign, inspection or repair, the Nissan dealer will ensure that any software upgrades applicable to that Nissan vehicle are installed (if not already done during vehicle service) at no cost to the customer," says Frank Byrne Head of Aftersales.
"A Nissan dealer will also carry out a multi-point inspection of the vehicle, also free of charge, ensuring that the vehicle is operating to Nissans recommended high levels of performance and safety."
Toyota recalled the largest number of cars in recent years, most noticeable in Ireland due to their high presence on Irish roads. From their experience and research they carried out, it is not the cause of the recall but how it is dealt with that is the most important aspect.
Recalls may be an inconvenience to consumers, but they are a vital part of car ownership and are entirely necessary in maintaining vehicle integrity, safety and maximising performance levels.