What is the US doing to combat recall-gate?

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2014 was a terrible year for car safety in the US because it was discovered that a good number of cars in the US – over 60 million at the last count – had terrible safety defects that could potentially lead to the loss of life of drivers and their passengers and in many cases, have been linked with such incidents. Of course, a lot needs to be done to prevent that happening in the future, but it’s going to be a long hard road and several parts of the industry and the government regulatory bodies will need overhauling to make it effective.

Fortunately, nobody seems to be twiddling their thumbs over it and a lot has happened already. Today, we’re going to look at what a few of those things are and what other areas the US based safety organisations could do to try and improve things further.

NHTSA reforms, replaces its head

The National Highway Transport Safety Association is the United States’ main watchdog when it comes to the safety of drivers and passengers on America’s roads. That means that when the revelations about all of the millions of vehicles that were affected by both the Takata airbag scandal and the GM starter motor debacle came to light, it had to stand there along with both part manufacturers and take a lot of heat over it. Of course its officials tried to shift some blame on others and was successful – legitimately so – with some car manufacturers, as it was discovered shortly after that some of them – like Honda – had used poor reporting practices in place for injuries and deaths that occurred in its vehicles, something that it is legally required to do every year.

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Still, the NHTSA had to take some of the blame too, so one of its first steps as part of a broad sweeping reformation, was to bring a new leader into its folds. Somewhat suspiciously, the previous head, David Strickland, had left of his own volition a year before, so at the time of the recall scandal, the NHTSA didn’t have an official head. One was needed though, with a pair of broad shoulders to take on the task of fixing the organisation and the entire auto-industry so that a recall event like this would never happen again.

Ultimately, the group and the U.S. Senate which weighed in on the appointment, settled on safety expert, Mark Rosekind. In past roles, Rosekind had been a keen researcher on the subject of human fatigue, which meant that he has a real eye for safety and a vested interest in making the roadways in the US much safer than they are currently. He’s also an ex-NASA official, so has experience helming large organisations.

As part of his plan to reform the agency, he first warned that the recalls may not stop at 60 million and that to make sure that the airbag and starter motor issues are put to bed for good, he may end up forcing car makers to recall even more faulty vehicles. He also said that he wanted to increase the effectiveness of recalls, hoping that an increased societal prescence for the NHTSA and a modernisation of its techniques for letting the public know about recalls, would see them be more effective in getting faulty vehicles off of the road.

Rosekind has also pledged to go after car makers that don’t follow the strict safety focused practices laid down by his organisation. On top of that, he plans to secure additional funding for the NHTSA, so that he could hire new staff members to handle the 75,000+ complaints that the organisation receives every year. As it stands, just nine staff members are given the task of handling these complaints.

Responsible parties are being fined

Of course though, as much as the NHTSA and other organisations can reform, there are still others that can be blamed for the lapse even more: the manufacturers of the faulty parts. Tataka was the company behind the flawed airbags and it’s been slapped with some big penalties. However, the big money isn’t being lost by Takata because of its failings in the past, but for its failings today. Due to its seeming unwillingness to cooperate with US regulators to help unearth where the problem began, it is – at the time of writing – being fined $14,000 per day that it delays.

This is also part of a punishment for the company’s poor rate of repairs on recalled vehicles. So far, although 17 million cars throughout the US have seen recall notices sent out, only a fraction have been repaired, suggesting that Tataka is not doing all it can do fix the issue. While it could be said that this is partially to do with supply issues – so many airbags were faulty that it would be very difficult to fix all of them and produce new ones for new vehicles in any reasonable time frame – the NHTSA and the US government believes Takata could be doing far more. As it stands, less than 10 per cent of all recalled vehicles have been repaired.

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Takata’s ‘non-cooperation’ in this instance though, almost comes across as deliberate obfuscation. While it has provided the NHTSA with over 2.4 million documents in order to facilitate the discovery of where in the production chain that something went wrong in the production of the airbags and why nobody was aware of it for the best part of a decade, it stands accused of relaying almost no information as to how this data should be used by regulators. Takata does however deny these claims, stating that it has been meeting regularly with engineers to try and find where the problem arose.

GM has also been fined several times for its scandal involving car recalls. While it remains under investigation for how much executives at the car company knew about the defective parts for the decade or more they were in circulation – potentially leading to a number of them being hit with more than just fines – the car company itself was fined back in early 2014 for its delay in making replacement parts available. Initially it was charged $28,000, and then when that failed to incentivise the company to hurry along replacement parts, the NHTSA began fining the company $7,000 a day.

Ultimately, perhaps expecting to have the book thrown at it, GM agreed to pay the Department of Transportation a fine of $35 million, the maximum that could be levied against it at the time. Since then, Mark Rosekind has pledged to raise the maximum fine to $300 million, which he believes will scare companies into making more of an effort to avoid delays in the event of cars being recalled.

 

Automakers are replacing their executives

As much as we’d love to kill Takata and GM over this though, some measure of blame for the tragedies that have occurred in recent years have to rest at the feet of the manufacturers of the cars that those people were injured or died in. Not that they are responsible for the faulty parts ending up in the cars themselves, as it sounds like testing wouldn’t have caught it. However, what some manufacturers are responsible for is poor reporting of the deadly incidents.

Take Honda for example, it ignored good practices of reporting fatalities and injuries in its cars, which it is legally required to furnish regulators with so that they can spot any trends – such as the use of faulty airbags – and act accordingly. While it has been decided that Honda executives acted out of ignorance rather than malice or greed, that hasn’t stopped its higher ups cleaning house. So far it has announced that president of the company, Takahiro Ito, will be replaced by the company’s managing officer, Takahrio Hachigo and will take on a more back-seat role, though he will remain on the board of directors.

While the company hasn’t stated that the changing of the guard is related to the airbag issue, it seems likely that that is the case, since it would be a major coincidence for both issues to have sprung up at the same time.

Products are being tested to find out what went wrong

When all is said and done, with blame placed, fines issued and companies smacked on the back of the hand for what have been for many families, life changing mistakes, there is one thing that needs to be made sure of: that nobody makes airbags and starter motors that have the same faults again.

Part of the problem with Takata’s hardware is thought to be to do with humidity, whereby the casing around the airbag itself warps, so that when the explosive charge is set off to fire the airbag out and fill it with air, the casing instead exploded and sent fragments hurtling into the passengers and driver. While that’s nice in theory, we need to know for sure whether that’s the case and what fault during manufacturing caused it, so many car makers have turned to aerospace company Orbital ATK to investigate.

The consortium of different car makers now leaning on Orbital is large, incluiding the likes of Toyota, Honda, Fiat, Chrysler, BMW, Mazda, Ford, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Nissan and General Motors. Together they have charged the aerospace firm with figuring out just what went wrong, using its experience in the use of rocket propulsion to see what caused the terrible problems.

How much damage has been done to this brand?

How much damage has been done to this brand?

As part of its investigation, Orbital will be specifically looking at claims that Takata used ammonium nitrate as a propellant in its airbags. Some chemical engineers have stated that that particular chemical has the potential to degrade over time when exposed to high temperatures and humidity, which can in turn lead to it igniting under the right conditions.

It may well be that the ‘right’ conditions were the ones that caused so many injuries and deaths among drivers of cars fitted with those airbags.

From GM’s side of things, it will be investigated as part of ongoing legal trials which sees it accused of being responsible for a young woman being put into a coma during a car accident that the prosecution claims was caused by GM’s faulty ignition switch. While GM has attempted to avoid lawsuits as much as possible, by denying all those that had accidents before 2009 due to a reshuffle at the company after bankruptcy filings and by setting up a fund for victims of the faulty hardware, over 950 people are still taking the company to court in various regions around the United States.

All of them however will be looking into the bellwether case to see what direction future lawsuits may take, which may influence GM’s actions. If it were to severely lose that initial court case, it may be that it attempts to settle out of court with all other plaintiffs, rather than fighting it out time and again and spending millions in legal fees alongside the potential damages payments.

As part of the bellwether trial, it’s been revealed that the reason the ignition switch caused problems, is that it would fall into an ‘accessory’ position (thanks NationalAW), which turned off all of the car’s electrics, including airbags and other safety features.

Conclusion

Although there is still a lot of investigating to be done, fines to be levied and manufacturing and reporting practices that need reforming, the scale of the fallout following the Takata and GM failings has been so grand, that I doubt we’ll see something like this again. Partly because it seems almost impossible that so many faulty parts were put out there, but also because many of the company’s involved will be unlikely to repeat it out of fear of losing huge cash reserves, alongside their reputations.

Takata may never recover from its incident. It will be interesting to see how long it takes GM to do the same.

Image source: Brian Turner, Circula Seg

 

 

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Jon Martindale is an English author and journalist, who's written for a number of high-profile technology news outlets, covering everything from the latest hardware and software releases, to hacking scandals and online activism.