As Vehicle Recalls Multiply, Technology Gets the Blame

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When computers crash, the risk is data loss. When a car crashes, there’s a real risk of personal injury. That risk is showing up in the booming number of safety-related vehicle recalls, and the enormous number of vehicles on the road today that may have a safety hazard that’s known but hasn’t been fixed.

Recalls in the U.S. have been rising dramatically since 2014, when the number jumped from about 22 million to almost 64 million, and the number of unfixed cars on the road today has grown from 37 million in 2014 to 63 million today, or one out of four vehicles, according to the car data firm Carfax. That’s 34 percent higher than in 2015, says the firm.

Neil Steinkamp, a managing director of consulting firm Stout Risius Ross, delivered the firm’s annual recall report to a meeting of automotive analysts in March, which found that of the 53.2 million vehicles recalled in 2016, 44 percent were to fix Takata air bag inflators. But the report also showed a trend that 60 percent of the recalls were design-related defects which included advanced technology such as driver-assist systems. Steinkamp mentioned that a typical luxury car today has computers on board that have a billion lines of code.

“Autonomous technology is happening now,” said Steinkamp, predicting “We’re going to see an increase in the amount of this content, with technology integration increasingly involved in Detroit’s defect investigations and recalls.”

Fixes, he added, will likely include a lot more “over-the-air” updates to software, such as Tesla has done. But he also added a few suggestions that raise the hair on the back of my neck.

The big problem is that recalls depend upon the private vehicle owner to take the car to a dealer and get it fixed. In newer cars, that compliance rate is more than 80 percent, but when a car is five years old or older, the rate drops to around 44 percent, according to a new survey by which was founded by FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) and the nonprofit National Safety Council and announced June 22.

Surveys done by show that a lot of car buyers don’t trust dealers to fix recall issues properly, and they also worry about the dealer charging them extra for non-recall repairs.

Steinkamp’s suggestions for greater compliance include higher insurance premiums for cars with safety issues that are unrepaired, to marking the vehicles to get an extra ticket if they’re ever pulled over by police. That sounds like an effective plan in theory, but with the trend in law enforcement and insurance to maximize revenues, I see potential for some alarming mistrust by motorists.

Still, the problem could be solved by car buyers checking to see if their cars need a free fix.

The survey revealed that 40 percent of car buyers would not take their cars to a dealer immediately if they received a recall notice, and five percent would never take their cars to be repaired. One third of the survey respondents have already received recall notices, and 70 percent said they didn’t know how to check online to see if their car had been recalled.

NHTSA has a free online database at, and also has an Android app to enable car owners to submit complaints regarding potential safety problems with their vehicles.

This article, by Phil Berg, first appeared on

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