Published July 2, 2013, Los Angeles Daily Journal – It is astonishing, when you think about it. On a near-daily basis, most of us step into some form of automotive transportation without giving a single thought to the integrity of the vehicle. We go to great lengths to ensure that we are protected and secured in the vehicle, but give little thought, if any, to the question of whether the vehicle itself is sound. With almost blanket immunity, we assume that the vehicle will just work, and keep working for as many years as we maintain ownership.
Yet the number of things that can go wrong with a vehicle is infinite. The modern day automobile has some 10,000 moving parts, manufactured by hundreds of different suppliers, all of which need to perform as intended through years of use. The failure of some parts is mere inconvenience; the failure of others is widespread catastrophe.
The announcement last week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it is launching a nationwide investigation into braking failures of the Honda Odyssey minivan underscores the severity of the issue. The charge is that 2007 and 2008 Honda Odysseys are suddenly braking without the driver applying the brakes, a defect that is believed to be derived from the vehicle’s stability management system.
Enacted in 1966, the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act gives the Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) the authority to require manufacturers to recall vehicles that have safety-related defects. Since then, NHTSA has overseen the recall of 502 million vehicles, tires and child safety seats. And as vehicles become increasingly complex, recalls are becoming more frequent.
In its first year of existence, NHTSA issued 58 recalls, affecting 982,823 vehicles. Last year, that number grew to 664 recalls – or nearly three every day the agency was open – impacting 17.8 million U.S. vehicles. Considering that there were 14.4 million sold in the U.S. in 2012, we have officially reached the era where more vehicles are recalled each year than are actually sold.
While many of the recalls are for non-life-threatening issues, such as a windshield wiper malfunction, an increasingly large number of recalls are for matters that can lead to consumer fatality. And the number is on the rise.
From 1970 to 2000, the industry saw relatively few recalls that lead to immediate consumer uproar. The most famous recalls of the era were the Ford Pinto recall, which affected 1971 to 1976 Ford Pintos that were prone to exploding on rear impact; the Audi 5000 recall, which recalled 1978 to 1983 Audi 5000s because of runaway acceleration; and the Ford Explorer recall, which impacted 1991 to 2000 Ford Explorers equipped with Firestone tires that were prone to rollover.
In the last 10 years, however, the number of recalls that relate to life-threatening issues has risen precipitously. In 2009, Toyota recalled 4.3 million vehicles due to the now-famous unintended acceleration problem; yet that was just the beginning of a series of critical recalls that would soon follow. In 2012, both Toyota and Honda issued recalls of over one million vehicles each for risk of spontaneous fire. In fact, in 2012, Honda and Toyota accounted for a combined 8.7 million recalled vehicles in the US, through 28 separate recall campaigns.
While the numbers are staggering, the results should not be overly shocking. Manufacturers are attempting to squeeze more efficiency and advancement from cars that ever before. And while it has always been the case that manufacturers have been seeking vehicle advancement, they have never before attempted to do it with such a level of vehicle autonomy. It used to be that fuel injection and cruise control were the height of vehicle advancement. Today, it is start-stop technology, vehicle stability management and regenerative braking.
It is this overlay of moving parts and software code that creates a perfect host environment for vehicle malfeasance. Consider that the average vehicle contains 100 million lines of software code running through dozens of on-board microprocessors. By way of comparison, the Apollo 11 spacecraft that put the first man on the moon was run by “top-secret” IBM punch cards that were mated to binary mainframe computers.
It is proving near impossible for manufacturers to keep software code and machined part in a steady state of intended harmony for any kind of extended period. Honda and Toyota, while owning the title of having issued the largest recalls, are far from alone in their inability to keep their products safe. GM, Ford and Chrysler combined for 6.2 million recalled U.S. vehicles in 2012, having issued 54 separate recall campaigns.
To be sure, the automobile is the most complicated product to ever be placed in the hands of a consumer. It is heavy and powerful, and capable of propelling consumers to speeds well over 100 mph in a matter of seconds. Recent developments, such as airbags, ABS braking and vehicle stability control, have enabled the automobile to become infinitely safer. Yet, ironically, the complexity of these very systems creates conflict in the ability of manufacturers to deliver a vehicle that is defect free.
Anyone who has seen their desktop computer suddenly crash without explanation can appreciate the sensitive nature of non-mechanical machinery. As manufacturers further pursue the unison of machine and computer, no one should be surprised at the unintended consequences that will naturally follow.