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Recalls, Responsibility and the Role of Technology

Jamie GoochWith all of the technology available to simulate, test and manage vehicle parts and systems, why have U.S. automotive recalls already exceeded 12 million this year? Bloomberg reports this year’s recall rates are on track to be the highest in a decade. It’s already more than half of all the U.S. automotive recalls last year.

It’s not just one automaker or supplier making recall headlines.

  • 6.4 million vehicles are being recalled by Toyota for two potential problems: an electrical cable could be damaged when turning the steering wheel, disabling the driver’s side airbags, and defective seat adjustment springs could prevent front seats from locking.
  • 644,354 vehicles are being recalled by Chrysler because brake boosters may corrode, allowing water to get inside and limit braking ability.
  • 348,950 Ford Escapes are being recalled because a control arm attachment could corrode and cause drivers to lose the ability to steer.
  • 156,137 luxury cars and SUVs are being recalled by BMW for defective engine bolts.
  • 150,201 Volkswagen Passats are being recalled for a loose headlight connection.
  • 42,000 Mazda6’s are being recalled because spiders, yes spiders, could weave a web in the evaporative canister vent hose, blocking it and thus affecting fuel tank pressure enough to crack the tank.

Those are just some of the automotive recalls for the month of April, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), and April is only halfway over as I write this column. I would argue that technology makes it easier than ever to find problems, and automakers are issuing more recalls to fix those problems as quickly as possible. That makes the 2.2 million General Motors cars that are being recalled for defective ignition switches even more troubling. The recalls — or more specifically, the sluggishness with which they were issued — have been linked to 13 deaths, and are the subject of a Congressional inquiry focusing on why it took so long for a recall to be issued.

“Documents produced to the committee show that both NHTSA and GM received complaints and data about problems with ignition switches and airbags,” said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) during his opening remarks at the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing April 1. “These complaints go back at least a decade. NHTSA engineers did crash investigations as early as ’05, and twice examined whether complaints with airbags constituted a trend. GM submitted Early Warning Reports to NHTSA, including data about crashes in the recalled cars. With all this information available, why did it take so long to issue the recall?”

The Limits of Technology

The latest reports on GM’s failure to recall the faulty switches focus on a few of the 200,000+ pages of documents released by the Subcommittee. While details are still emerging, emails and faxes to a supplier seem to indicate a design engineer approved changing the defective part in 2006 without creating a new part number, which made the problem difficult to trace and delayed the recall for years.

Let’s assume (and hope) that GM no longer relies on faxes and emails to communicate and collaborate as much as it did in 2005. Even so, the most advanced product lifecycle management software in the world is only as good as the people using it. Technology is just a tool; it’s how people use it (or don’t) that matters.

Yes, cars are more and more complicated. Yes, engineers are being asked to do more in less time. No, it’s not acceptable that a design flaw not be rectified for a decade. The technological tools are available to mange the complications and allow more design iterations in less time. The cultural norms still have some catching up to do.

“GM employees have always been encouraged to raise safety concerns, whether openly or anonymously, and are empowered to be persistent,” wrote GM CEO Mary Barra in a recent blog post directed at her employees. Barra has been CEO since Jan. 15. “We will learn from our recent experience, and it will make us better.”

The recall is a harsh wake-up call for GM and other companies struggling to keep pace with today’s engineering demands. To err is human, but we need better training, leadership and cultural systems in place to implement and use the technological tools that enable us to catch and correct those errors more quickly.

Jamie Gooch is the managing editor of Desktop Engineering. Contact him at de-editors@deskeng.com.

About Jamie J. Gooch

Jamie Gooch is the editorial director of Digital Engineering. Contact him at de-editors@digitaleng.news.