Motorised vehicles are among the inventions that transformed mankind most. They shrank distances, gave us more freedom and opportunity and allow us to express our personality.
From the time of the first cars which could explode on you any time and now, safety has been a paramount concern for manufacturers. A car is, after all, at least a ton of metal and flammable fuel that can go at great speeds and can be lethal. While accidents are often due to human error, once in a while, technical defects develop, leading to recalling huge numbers of vehicles.
Here are some of the most interesting ones.
Ford's Park Mode failure, 1980
With 21 million vehicles recalled, this is, to date, the largest recall in the history of car manufacturing, affecting all Ford cars produced between 1976 and 1980.
The issue was with the transmission system of their automatic cars. A flaw in a safety catch caused the car to slip spontaneously from ‘Park’ mode to ‘Reverse’ mode without warning. It caused over 6,000 accidents, 1,700 injuries and 98 deaths.
Between lawsuits and the cost to recall all the vehicles and repair the problem, Ford lost over $2 billion.
General Motors’ faulty rear suspension, 1981
In 1981, American car manufacturer General Motors recalled 6.4 million cars and light trucks produced between 1978 and 1981 after 27 accidents occurred.
It turned out that the two bolts that attached the rear-wheel lower control arms to the frame had a tendency to rust and fall off, letting the control arm drop, which, as you would expect, resulted in a loss of control of the vehicle. Not what you want to happen at high speed on the motorway.
Despite the logistic nightmare involved in recalling this volume of vehicles, the fix was simple and quick as it would take no more than 20 minutes to replace the faulty bolts with more durable ones.
The Takata seatbelt, 1995
If you have never heard of Takata, it is because they were not car manufacturers but suppliers of seatbelts to household brands like Honda, Nissan, Chrysler, Mazda or Mitsubishi.
The defect was in the button on the latch which could crack and jam the locking mechanism, trapping occupants in their seat. Not only was it, to say the least, inconvenient, but it posed a major safety risk. In case of an accident, drivers and passengers could be imprisoned inside their car putting their life in further danger.
After investigating the issue, the auto makers most affected by the issue offered replacement mechanisms on over 8 million vehicles at a cost of $1.25 billion.
Toyota's runaway accelerator, 2009-2010
In 2009 and 2010, a combination of flaws in the production line led to an extremely dangerous problem: accelerators that got stuck down, either because the floor mat got caught under the accelerator, jamming it down, or because they would simply not go back up when the driver let go.
After 60 cases of this problem were reported to Toyota, and people were killed in 30 of them, the car manufacturer recalled the models affected by the problem (Avalon, Camry, Corolla, Matrix, Highlander, Prius, RAV4, Tundra, Tacoma and some Lexus models) in 2009 and 2010 to reconfigure the accelerator.
The cost of the recall was estimated in excess of $6.5 billion by the company’s officials and about 9 million vehicles were recalled.
Honda’s airbags, 2014 and 2016
Airbags can save your life, but they can also hurt you if they deploy at the wrong moment, or too suddenly.
Between 2005 and 2016, certain Honda and Acura cars were fitted with airbags produced by Takata – them again – which, due to a production default, could deploy with too much force, explode and send shrapnel into the air. It affected the driver-side front airbag and was identified as the cause of 9 deaths in the US.
Between 2014 and 2016, Honda recalled almost 15 million vehicles, although some of it was more of a precaution. The issue, though, was that Honda had known about it for a decade before they took action, and they were fined $90 million for not reporting it sooner.
Volkswagen’s emission cheat, 2016
New cars have to comply with gas emission standards to be authorised on roads. VW’s diesel cars were largely under the limit but a team of researchers uncovered puzzling results on a 2012 Jetta and a 2013 Passat which had significantly higher gas emission levels than expected. Further testing on a large number of vehicles revealed that the problem was wider than initially thought.
Volkswagen was unable to explain the discrepancy satisfactorily and after further investigation, it transpired that the auto maker was not only fully aware of the issue but had actually installed a software that was designed to falsify results: it detected when a vehicle was being tested for emission levels and switched on full emission controls. At all other times, it would turn them off, and emissions of nitrogen oxide were higher than EPA (the Environmental Protection Agency) levels by a factor of 10 to 40 times when used in normal conditions.
Volkswagen had to recall millions of cars throughout the world, at an estimated cost of €10.5 billion which resulted in the company’s first quarterly loss in 15 years of €4 billion. If that wasn’t bad enough, the EPA also has the authority to fine VW at the tune of €48,000 for each vehicle!
In addition to the financial implications, this situation is also a PR nightmare. Even consumers who aren’t terribly interested in the environment will, however, be wary of a brand that deliberately sets out to deceive them and VW will have to work hard to regain the public’s trust.
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