All man-made products are subject to trial and error during the development process. In some cases, problems occur once a good has been manufactured, shipped, and sold to customers. Recently, two major automotive companies, Ferrari and Volkswagen, recalled thousands of their sports models worldwide. This month’s blog post will explain why the recalls occurred with insight from Experts.com member and Forensic Engineering expert witness Tarek Omar, Ph.D.
Ferrari, the Italian luxury sports car manufacturer, announced its recall of 2,222 cars in China, which will start on May 30th, 2022. According to China’s market regulator, the defect lies in the automotive’s braking system (CNBC). Ferrari confirmed the cause of the said defect, which is the improper venting of the brake reservoir fluid cap. “The safety and wellbeing of our clients is our priority. We operate according to stringent safety and security guidelines to ensure the right systems and procedures are in place at all times,” stated Ferrari. The retracted cars include the 458 Italia, 458 Speciale, 458 Speciale A, 458 Spider, 488 GTB, 488 Spider series models, and cars imported between March 2010 to March 2019.
In the United States and Canada, Volkswagen has recalled 246,000 Atlas and Atlas Cross Sport SUVs (CNBC). The reported issue stems from wiring issues that affect the cars’ airbags, brakes, and windows. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration stated the wiring issue could lead to the airbags functioning “later than designed,” which leaves consumers susceptible to harm. Volkswagen notified owners and dealers through mail on May 10th, 2022, of the following vehicles subject to the recall: 2019 – 2023 Volkswagen Atlas and 2020-2023 Volkswagen Atlas Cross Sport. Given the provided information, Experts.com member and Forensic Engineering expert, Dr. Omar, has shared his insight on the topic.
Question: Two major car companies, Ferrari and Volkswagen, have recently recalled some of their models. How often do automotive recalls occur?
Dr. Omar: Automotive recalls are very common. There could be up to 50 million cars with a new recalled issue in any given year. Some vehicles may have multiple recalls occurring at different times. A telling statistic is the recall rate which signifies the number of recalled vehicles per 1,000 sold. A study by iSeeCars.com that tracked recalls from January 1985 to September 2016 showed that for the 427,971,556 cars sold during this period, 527,406,263 were recalled yielding a recall rate of 1,115 per 1,000 cars sold. Porsche ranked 1st with 531 per 1,000 and Volkswagen 18th with 1,805. By law, safety defects in vehicles up to 15 years old must be included in recalls.
Question: What is the most common cause of automotive recalls?
Dr. Omar: With the technological advancements in vehicles today, sensors and software are prone to faults and will probably lead the list of common recalls. Traditional safety systems such as airbags, seatbelt tensioners, and ABS braking, as well as modern driver-assist systems such as lane departure, blind spot, forward collision, and rear cross-traffic warnings, rely heavily on properly functioning sensors, computers, and software. Traditional mechanical and electrical issues will of course continue to appear in faulty wiring, fuel lines, brake lines, throttle pedals, and engines, to name a few.
Question: Are recalls usually tied to something that may cause injury? Or are there other reasons for an automotive recall?
Dr. Omar: Recalls could be initiated for any reason, but the most prevalent are safety-related. Whether initiated by the automaker or by the government regulators, the recall is aimed at correcting a defect due to vehicle design, manufacturing, or supply chain issues. Safety recalls are generally for defects that could lead to injury or death. Non-safety recalls might be due to emissions issues, such as the Volkswagen Dieselgate scandal in 2015, and are initiated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A defect in a vehicle is not always repaired through a recall. Manufacturers often issue Technical Service Bulletins, and the dealers or repair shops will typically repair the defect during routine maintenance visits. However, for safety and environmental defects, a recall must be issued.
Question: Is there a regulatory process to follow to institute a recall?
Dr. Omar: Yes, there is. The National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) is tasked and funded by Congress to oversee vehicle safety and enforce the United States Code for Motor Vehicle Safety [Title 49, Chapter 301]. While NHTSA has the authority to issue recalls, most are actually initiated by automakers. The EPA has a similar regulatory framework for emissions-related recalls.
Question: What is the average time frame for suppliers and manufacturers to repair the faults for defective cars?
Dr. Omar: It is difficult to pinpoint an average time. Once a recall is issued the owners are notified by mail that a defect has been identified. It will explain the nature of the defect and provide instructions for getting the defect repaired either by the authorized service center or by software download. The notice will also explain whether the vehicle can be driven prior to the repair or if are any instructions in terms of parking the vehicle (in case of fire due to fuel leaks, battery charging, etc.). Some recall notices may not indicate the proposed solution, and it might take the automaker months to determine how it will repair the defect. Given that notices may not reach the current owners of a recalled vehicle, it may take years for an owner to realize that there is a recall and to get it performed. Owners should frequently check the NHTSA website for ongoing recalls. It should be noted that while repairing the issue is the most common remedy, other options include replacing a defective part, offering a refund, or even repurchasing the vehicle.
Question: In the Ferrari article, CNBC stated that the luxury sports car brand recalled vehicles from March 2010 to March 2019. Why do you think Ferrari waited so long to issue the recall?
Dr. Omar: Ferrari is a low-volume manufacturer, which might affect the process. In general, automakers rely on service centers’ repair records to identify and address potential defects. Typical car models are sold in large volumes, on the order of 100,000 per year, and often substantially more. Some parts are used across models, and that number could be as many as a million or multi-million cars. In the case of Ferrari, the total production is less than 10,000 cars per year and coupled with the fact that they are typically not driven a lot of miles a year, means that the problem reporting will take time. It is very likely that Ferrari did not become fully aware of the issue for several years after the 2010 cars began to sell, and initially offered free repairs under the vehicle warranty. Typically, once the defect is identified the company will analyze manufacturing records to determine how many of the affected parts are in production, was there a specific batch from the supplier, or any other analytics that help bound the issue. By law, the automaker must report the problem and issue a recall immediately once a safety problem is identified, even if they are still investigating the problem and solution.
Question: How difficult is it to determine a faulty product once manufacturing and sales begin?
Dr. Omar: There are several ways that a fault is identified. First and foremost, through reported problems either from crash data or maintenance service reports. Customer reporting is another factor, and if not addressed by the manufacturer, NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigations will open an investigation into the matter. Consumer advocacy groups and media often play a role as well in applying pressure on the manufacturer to address the issue.
Question: Both cars recalled sports models. Are sports cars more complex design-wise than other types of vehicles?
Dr. Omar: Not particularly. Sports cars tend to have higher performance components such as engines, transmissions, brake systems, and suspensions, which, unlike regular vehicles, are sometimes pushed to their limit. Given the number of ongoing defect recalls, sports cars make up a small percentage.