The number of vehicles recalled in the US has been surging for years, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Looking at data going back to 1996, annual recalls had averaged around 20 million until 2014, when the number jumped to over 50 million, and it’s been steadily increasing since. Why are more and more cars getting recalled these days?
The reasons for the increase are numerous, but the 2014 spike appears to be due to a couple major recalls. When airbags made by the Japanese manufacturer Takata were found to be faulty, millions of cars had to be recalled and repaired, resulting in “the largest and most complex safety recall in U.S. history,” according to the NHTSA. On top of that, the ignition switch in a number of General Motors vehicles suffered from a flaw that caused them to shut off without warning. The millions of brands affected included Impala, Malibu, Cobalt, and others.
The Takata airbag recall highlights another reason for the increase in recalls: Changing safety standards. It might seem to be a bit of a paradox, but as safety requirements increase, so do the safety risks. The Takata airbags, for example, tended to explode unexpectedly and send shrapnel throughout the compartment — a risk that never existed prior to the requirement for driver and passenger airbags.
In a similar vein, but more generally, advancements in technology also contribute to the increase in recalls. As cars get more technologically sophisticated, more things can break down, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. Computerization has become common in automobile design, so everything that can and does go wrong with your personal computer or laptop can also go wrong with your car. Both hardware and software malfunction all the time, and when they control your vehicle, the stakes are much higher. According to industry watcher AlixPartners, “Recalls correcting defects in electronic or electrical systems—including many comforts and safety features that today’s consumer’s demand—have grown a staggering 30% a year in recent years.”
Regulators are now operating more assertively, adding to the number of recalls. After the General Motors recall over ignition switches, for example, GM agreed to federal monitoring and closer scrutiny of its operations.
Cost-cutting by manufacturers can also be blamed for recalls, since cutting costs will have a direct impact on quality. Ford had to call back 1.4 million cars because their steering wheels could come loose and detach from the steering column.
Finally, the bad warranty practices of manufacturers can lead to full recalls. One good example of this happened over the Hyundai engine recall. “Instead of handling the repairs, which were its own fault, the automaker allegedly denied claims on frivolous grounds,” says personal injury attorney John Foy. “Outrage over the way Hyundai handled the defect led to a large-scale recall.”
It looks like recalls have mostly plateaued over the last few years, but the numbers are triple what the were in 1996. Unless one or more of the factors above changes, those higher recall numbers may be here to stay.