Following a series of accidents due to defective airbags and the recall of vehicles affected, the New Zealand Government and New Zealand Transport Agency have tightened the regulations allowing the import of used vehicles fitted with Takata airbags.
Car recalls are not uncommon, and Takata in particular is in the spotlight fairly regularly, as it supplies parts to all the big names of the Japanese car industry: Honda, Nissan, Chrysler, Mazda and Mitsubishi. It has 56 plants in 20 countries and makes around a quarter of all the airbags produced in the world.
What is puzzling is the fact that, although car manufacturers are capable of flawless coordination across the globe between suppliers, factories and car dealerships when it comes to the production process, they seem helpless when things go wrong and it is necessary to recall a car, leading to a situation where the same car model will be taken off the market for a defect in one part of the world whereas it will remain on the roads somewhere else.
The reason for this situation is incredibly simple: car manufacturers don’t organise worldwide recalls because they don’t have to. Incredibly, there are no international regulations defining what is safe and what isn’t and what process to follow when a make is notified of a defect. For example, the cars being recalled in Europe and Asia at the moment because of their defective airbags were recalled in the US in 2011, but it wasn’t until they caused the death of a driver in Malaysia more recently that the recall was extended, although all these airbags were manufactured at the same time in the same plant.
Although the United Nations have been trying for decades to harmonise safety standards across the globe, there has been little appetite between countries for worldwide policies, and car makers are pretty much the ones to decide what constitutes a defect ‘worth’ triggering a recall and the scale of it, and obviously, profit being often paramount, they will usually drag their feet as much as they can before they take that step.
This has led to a wide discrepancy between countries when it comes to safety standards. In Europe and Japan, vehicles are rigorously tested before being commercialised; in the US, car manufacturers certify themselves that their cars are safe while in developing countries like Mexico and India, there are no safety standards at all.
What happens once a car maker has agreed that there is problem justifying recall varies wildly from a nation to the other too. For example, in the US, vehicle manufacturers must report a defect within five days, even if they don’t yet know the cause or have a solution in place. They must also inform the American government of recalls abroad, although it won’t inform other countries of recalls issued in the US. In Colombia, the government requires the car makers to go public only when they have found a way to repair the problem so that customers know what to expect.
How the public is notified is also completely different. American car makers must contact owners quarterly by mail whereas, in Brazil, they must buy radio air time and newspaper ads to announce recalls. In China, organising a recall once it is official falls on the car dealers. In addition to these differences, there is also a multitude of countries where there are simply no systems to track vehicle identification numbers so it is next to impossible to find cars if they have changed owners.
In the face of all these disparities, car manufacturers agree that it would be good to have global safety standards so that they only really make one car and not a dozen variations to comply with local standards, especially when those have nothing to do with safety, such as the US and Europe having different rules about the direction of headlight beams! At present, there are three main ‘blocks’ leading safety regulations: the US, Europe and Japan. Most countries have adopted one of those… or decided to mix it up a little and create their own by cherry-picking from the three of them!
Another issue created by these variations is that it makes recalls more complicated as the car manufacturer has to keep track of which one is concerned by the defect.
While it probably doesn’t make things easy from a logistical point of view, it has to be said that this state of affairs is not all bad for car manufacturers, despite their protests, as it allows them to make savings by not adding safety features in countries where they are not mandatory. Nissan, for example, didn’t put air bags in the Datsun Go selling in India and South Africa because it isn’t required. Their comment was that they meet the local standards and that the car has better brakes which accounts for fewer accidents and therefore less need for air bags...
Car manufacturers can also save significant sums by delaying car recalls. In 2014, General Motors recalled the Aveo in the US because brakes were being damaged by corrosion…. Two years after they had recalled it for the same reason in Europe. The Ford SUVs 1.6-liter EcoBoost was still in circulation in Europe and Brazil two years after it was recalled in the US because of a fire risk, and only because a certain amount of pressure had been applied.
However, the best way to save money for car manufacturers is by not having to organise recalls on a massive scale in the first place by building safer cars and anticipating problems. The car industry is very hopeful that the Internet of Things and connected vehicles will make a difference as cars will display recall notices directly onto their dashboard, like General Motor’s OnStar system does, while Tesla already sends software updates directly into their cars to fix bugs.
However, this technology isn’t yet widespread so we still have a few decades of recalls to live through!
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