Why So Many Auto Recalls These Days?

2015 has been an incredible year for vehicle recalls. Millions of cars, trucks and SUVs have had to go back to the shop to fix problems ranging from bad wiring to hackable software to airbags that throw shrapnel around like a grenade to diesel engines which cheat on their emissions tests like a stereotypical jock in math class. In fact, the only year to beat out 2015 is 2014, the year that Takata airbags and GM ignition switches prompted millions of recalls which eventually reached a number equal to one quarter of all vehicles on the road.

But 2015 didn’t reach its recall count solely because of big news scandals and the fact that the Takata and GM campaigns are still ongoing. There’s been a real, quantifiable change in how car companies are treating recalls, and they seem to be getting more and more proactive as time goes by. So what’s ultimately responsible for this change in their approach?


1. Regulators are growing teeth. Regulatory agencies are so chronically underfunded that it’s a punchline, and so agencies like the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are basically forced to apply a light touch and encourage self-regulation. In the wake of last year’s scandals, however, the NHTSA has gained a new director, one who believes that a good regulator shouldn’t trust a company’s word quite so often.

2. Financial penalties are having the desired effect. Although regulators may not have the will or the resources to identify every vehicle defect and demand an appropriate response, they’re certainly quick enough to levy a fine once the truth comes out thanks to a watchdog organization or a dedicated personal injury lawyer. And not only government fines but civil lawsuits guarantee that car companies will be paying for their fatal mistakes for years after they come to light.

3. Social media publicizes every problem. We live in an age now where you can take pictures and videos and write testimonials about problems with your car within seconds of the problem occurring. Considering that all these complaints are in the public record, it can be hard to keep a defect quiet when anyone can come along and connect the dots between a dozen separate incidents.


1. Consumer confidence is remaining steady. Considering all the big recalls last year, car companies have had the opportunity to find out how major scandals and minor repairs affect the buying habits of their customers. Somewhat to their surprise, the answer turned out to be “not much.” A recall is, after all, a mixed indicator: it means that the company made a mistake when it came to building the car, but it also means that they care enough to fix their mistake for free.

2. A better bottom line. Recalls always cost money, and that money digs into a company’s bottom line since it means fixing a problem that won’t add any real value to a product. However, in the face of government fines and civil personal injury cases, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that a quick recall may be the least costly option available.

3. Growing safety divisions. Following its ignition switch debacle, GM hired a “safety czar” to watch out for defects or other safety concerns in their products so that they could issue recalls in a swift and effective manner. Other companies have added to their safety inspection staff and have switched to a proactive recall stance so that even if a problem is unlikely to occur or unlikely to cause a safety hazard, they’ll issue a recall anyway just to be safe.

Getting a recall repair can be a real hassle, especially if it’s part of a large campaign and as such there’s a long waiting list at the local dealership and then they run out of parts before your turn comes up. Still, as cars grow more complicated and manufacturers grow more paranoid, you should get used to the idea of having to put your car through at least one (and very possibly more) recall repair during its lifetime. It may be a hassle, but it means never having to worry about becoming just another statistic in an article about vehicle defects..