Does it matter how often cars are recalled?

It’s no surprise that recalls such as the latest for the Toyota Prius, last week, worry drivers. We need a better way to deal with them

Update: a technician at a Toyota factory checks a Prius after the 2009 recall. Photograph: Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty

Update: a technician at a Toyota factory checks a Prius after the 2009 recall. Photograph: Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty

Fri, Feb 21, 2014, 08:58

last week when it recalled almost two million Prius models around the world to correct a software problem that could make some of them halt unexpectedly. Since 2009, when a spate of “unintended acceleration” incidents triggered a recall of more than nine million of its vehicles, Toyota has been in the spotlight every time it has made one of these announcements. Such recalls are fairly common, however, as normal a part of motor manufacturing as launches and midlife facelifts. So why are we so sensitive about them?

One reason could be that recalls are more frequent. In the US – generally seen as the home of recalls, because of its powerful consumer culture – there were 58 recalls in 1966. In 2008 there were 800. There are still more than three a week. Why? One factor is “feature creep”. The cars of 1966 were bare chassis compared with the cars of today. Climate control, electronic safety systems, Bluetooth and other features make vehicles more complex. Some of those components are going to fail.

Think about Nasa. For the Apollo moon missions the US space agency said that 99 per cent of components had to work on each mission. Which sounds pretty impressive until you remember that means a 1 per cent failure rate. A Saturn V rocket had more than a million components, so Nasa was expecting 10,000 of them to break on every mission.

José Alberto Uclés of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which administers vehicle recalls in the US, says vehicle complexity is only part of the issue. “We have one of the most effective defect programmes in the world and continue to pursue investigations and recalls wherever our data justifies doing so. Manufacturers are also willing to initiate recalls on their own. Consumers are more vocal about sending the agency and the manufacturer complaints if they experience a defect in their vehicles. Media also plays a good role.”

Ireland has no central body for co-ordinating recalls, and no central database. In the UK, car owners can check the Vehicle & Operator Services Agency database, which gives details of every recall.

“The National Consumer Agency is involved with communicating product defects, and that includes cars,” says Alan Nolan, president of the Society of the Irish Motor Industry. “We’ve raised the issue of a recall-specific service with the Government before, and we feel that the appropriate authority to work on such a system would be the Road Safety Authority. We’d be enthusiastic to work with them.”

The top 10 car makers in the State last year issued 31 recall notices involving thousands of vehicles. So a central database would help. It may also help with another issue: many owners do not hear about recalls or do not care when they do.

There is one final problem with recalls. They are driving up prices. The cost of every recall must, by law, be borne by the manufacturer. That can be enormous. Toyota is reckoned to have spent €5 billion on litigation fees alone dealing with the fallout from its 2009 recall. Although the cost cannot be passed directly to consumers, it must be paid for somehow. That means writing the cost into the price of the next generation of vehicles.

No car maker we asked was prepared to say what percentage of a new vehicle’s price is put aside for recall costs, but it must be significant.

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