What's Behind The Auto Recall Surge?

Apr 11, 2014

BMW is the latest automaker to announce a car recall. Yesterday, the automaker announced it’s recalling 156,137 luxury cars and SUVs because of possible stalling issues.

This comes on the heels of Toyota’s recall announcement this week, and General Motors’ recent vehicle recall notices. There have been more than 11 million vehicle recalls so far this year, and it’s part of the rapid rise of recalls in the past five years.

Paul Eisenstein, publisher of the car news website The Detroit Bureau, says on the whole, car quality is better than ever, but there are other factors at work, including larger scale production, and increased regulation of the auto industry.

He joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the surge in recalls, despite all the innovations in automobile production.


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This is HERE AND NOW from NPR and WBUR Boston. I'm Jeremy Hobson.

BMW is recalling more than 156,000 luxury cars and SUVs because of possible stalling problems. This comes on the heels of Toyota's recall of more than 6.4 million cars this week. And then, of course, there are General Motors' woes. The company has recalled 6.3 million vehicles since the beginning of this year.

So are all these recalls happening by coincidence? Or are our cars less safe? Or are the companies just being more cautious? What is going on? Paul Eisenstein has been thinking a lot about this. He is the publisher of the car news website TheDetroitBureau.com, and he's with us from WDET in Detroit. Paul, welcome back.

PAUL EISENSTEIN: Good to be with you.

HOBSON: Well, what's behind the surge in all of these recalls?

EISENSTEIN: Well, gee, you answered it all. Actually, you're correct. It is a little bit of everything. It is a matter of, in some cases, vehicles are having more problems because they're more complex. It is a little bit to do with the fact that manufacturers are being more cautious, especially as they face more pressure from the federal government and from us in the media.

And it also has to do with the way that there are changes occurring in the way vehicles are being manufactured today, sharing parts that mean that when there's a problem, not just one but many different models can be facing a recall.

HOBSON: Although it is a little like the boy who cried wolf. If you keep recalling things and you're being overly cautious, I wonder how many people actually bring their cars in and get them fixed.

EISENSTEIN: Well, it's interesting that you said it because that is a very serious problem that the industry faces. Even with the most serious of safety issues, they generally find that only about 70, maybe 80 percent of people who are targeted for a recall will actually show up at the dealership to get a fix. In some cases when it's a minor recall, they may only see 20 to 30 percent according to industry numbers.

HOBSON: OK. Let's go through a couple of things you brought up there. First of all, are cars less safe?

EISENSTEIN: In general, I would say no. If you look at almost all the supporting data, it suggests that vehicles are showing higher quality out of the box. They're showing better reliability after three to five years. And let's go to the most telling of numbers, which is the annual death toll on the highways. Compare it to a few years ago, more people are driving. They're driving further. They're driving at higher speeds because, as you know, a lot of freeways have had their speed limits raised.

HOBSON: Right.

EISENSTEIN: And yet the death toll is lowest in decades in terms of the raw number, about 33,000 last year. And on a per 100 million miles driven basis, it's also the lowest ever recorded. So from that sense, you would say vehicles are safer.

HOBSON: So what about the idea that they're now more complicated, that that's the reason for it, is that we've got - everything is being run by a computer. If something goes wrong, it's just a lot more likely that there will be a recall.

EISENSTEIN: Well, that is an issue because you do have much more complex vehicles, more things in a vehicle to go wrong. Manufacturers, I think, are making a good point of trying to catch problems when they occur. And generally, a recall is not - I'm sorry. Generally, a safety issue with a vehicle is not the reason that you have a crash or a fatality. The reality is most of the data suggest that 80 percent-plus, maybe even as high as 95 percent-plus of any fatalities are purely from driver error. So these problems are not the reason that we have most of our crashes on the road.

HOBSON: And, Paul, just briefly, we've always heard of recalls as being part of the cost of doing business. You'd rather just bring things in and fix them than deal with the consequences later. Has that changed at all because of what's happened?

EISENSTEIN: No. I think, if anything, the manufacturers are getting more sensitive and more willing to do recalls as quickly as possible. I think studies have shown that if you handle a recall well, a customer will actually be more loyal to a brand. What it's all about is the ethics of the manufacturer.

HOBSON: Yeah. Paul...

EISENSTEIN: If you do the thing right, customers will feel good. If you do things badly - well, what GM is facing right now - where you show that you might have risked the customer's safety on a cost issue, then you're going to get punished.

HOBSON: Paul Eisenstein with TheDetroitBureau.com, thanks so much.

EISENSTEIN: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.