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Total Recall

Think about this for a second: In 2013, there were 45 percent more cars recalled than there were cars sold.

Over the past decade, recalls are up 4 percent while sales are down 10 percent. This year automakers will easily eclipse a rather dubious mark and surpass 2004’s record of 30 million total cars recalled. Most famously, GM has issued 45 recalls so far this year, totaling more than 28 million cars. The auto industry as a whole is only expected to sell 16 million cars this year.

So what gives? What is the cause of the skyrocketing number of recalls? Is this a sign of an industry that is woefully incompetent and crumbling?

There are some plausible theories out there as to what is contributing to the increase.

One is simple complexity. As cars become more and more like rolling, internally combusted computers, there is simply more stuff that can break. Software glitches are just as likely to trigger a recall as a mechanical flaw. That makes some sense, but it cannot possibly account for the entire increase.

Others point to the increasing use of modular manufacturing in the auto industry. Because an automaker creates a single widget to use across a wide number of makes and models, when that widget fails it requires a much larger recall to fix a single problem. Again, this is a logical, but insignificant, explanation.

One more explanation is a fear of litigation. Toyota recently settled its sudden acceleration recall issue by paying a record $1.2 billion fee. Frankly, that makes very little sense since the costs of the recalls themselves are already daunting.

The explanation that actually makes the most sense, but that nobody is really talking about, also involves fear. The most plausible and all-encompassing reason for the recall increase is that automakers are horribly, terribly frightened to death of … you. You scare the car companies. You keep them up nights. You have made them proactive at historically unprecedented levels.

Why do you scare them so badly?

It’s simple really; you scare them because you are powerful at historically unprecedented levels. The customer has a truly astonishing voice and ability to affect change in the modern world. You caused the recall issue.

If a person reads the recall statistics without context, it’s easy to assume that we are riding around every day in four wheeled deathtraps, but that is not the case. The number of motor vehicle traffic fatalities is down more than 8 percent over the last decade. We are safer when driving now than we ever have been.

Many recalls have been conducted for rather trivial matters. Lexus conducted a recall last year for a loose nut on a windshield wiper. Four automakers recalled cars based on an incorrect tire pressure label. That’s the power you have.

You even have power over the agency tasked with regulating the auto industry. The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA) is woefully underfunded, and has been for years. Rather than increase funding, Congress passed the Tread Act in 2014, which forces the auto industry to publicly disclose all defect data to the general public. This allows you to police the regulators and the industry itself.

The auto industry is scared of you, and nearly every other consumer industry is as well. In a day and age where every person is a publisher, where every person has a platform to reach millions of other people, consumer product companies have taken notice.

In the auto industry, that has taken the form of more proactive recall policies.

Here is the really odd part of all this: GM, which is having its top executives dragged before Congress on a seemingly daily basis to answer questions about the fact that they hid knowledge of the ignition fire issue for nearly a decade, is still selling cars like crazy. Their market share is up this year and their sales are easily beating projections. One industry consultant said that it’s not about the recalls, but rather about the “recall experience.” In other words, GM is using the recalls to build better customer relationships and sell more cars. They really just want to talk to you and help you and make your problems go away.

In an age of total recall, it’s all about you.


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