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Car Recalls for Electronic Defects Likely to Continue

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In the past several years, the trend in causes for automobile defect recalls has begun to evolve from mechanically-based problems to electronically-based ones. As cars contain more and more electronically-driven systems and parts, defects have become more electronically based and recalls are now frequently due to faulty electronic connections, processes, systems and/or parts.

During recent years, Toyota, Volvo, Nissan and other car makers have recalled more than a million cars due to electronic problems that caused other problems, such as cars not starting, cars not stopping, and things like emissions control devices preventing cars from starting. We hope most vehicle owners already are aware that they can no longer turn off the “check engine” light simply by having a fault or defect repaired; the car must be taken to the dealer, so the dealer can electronically turn off the “check engine” light–and that will cost you. Gone are the days when a car can be taken to Jake down the street and have Jake’s real good mechanic take care of the problems if the underlying reason is electronic systems or parts. Unless Jake’s real good mechanic is also a techno-wizard who has the gizmo that turns off the “check engine” light, you are likely going to spend money at the dealer!

The July 2011 issue of The Safety Record points out that in the future a variety of electronic systems problems may qualify your vehicle for recall and possible protracted time without your vehicle while it is in the dealers’ for repairs.

You may remember, “In April 2011, Toyota recalled 307,848 2008 Highlander and Highlander Hybrid and 2007-2008 Rav4 vehicles because simultaneous faults in two roll-angle sensors in the curtain shield airbag assembly could cause inadvertent deployment of the side-air curtain and activation of the seat belt pretensioners.” Did you get all that? That’s a lot of electro-mechanical jargon, but it took Toyota four years to recall the cars. Toyota had become aware that there was a problem in October 2007, but as The Safety Record notes, “Toyota… argued that dual simultaneous faults do not occur in the real world in refuting an electronic cause of unintended acceleration, similarly posited that dual simultaneous faults were highly unlikely to trigger inadvertent deployments.” Huh? And, as we all know, complaints from the real world continued to roll in. Toyota finally concluded there was indeed a greater likelihood of a double-fault triggering a deployment than they had originally anticipated and they finally “launched a recall.”

The Safety Record also noted that electronic-based recalls have comprised more than a quarter of the 772 automobile recalls submitted to NHTSA over the last year, or approximately 193 recalls. Of those recalls, 24 recall campaigns address software defects alone. JD Powers’ data on defects shows that “as the number of electronic functions a vehicle has rises, so do the number of defects.”

Steven Wolfsreid of Mercedes-Benz may be the only thinking person when it comes to electronically-based defects causing…customer malaise. He said, after having “removed 600 electronic functions from Mercedes-Benz vehicles because of quality concerns that were damaging its reputation and ticking off its customers, “Electronics are challenging to integrate into a vehicle’s electrical architecture, and what works well in isolation can be a disaster in combination with other electronic components.”

So, while the benefits of all of the electronic gadgetry are great, we are going to have to live with some quirks, hiccups and bugs in the process. Let’s hope that the bugs that develop do not put the occupants of the car in danger, and are limited only to an inconvenient trip to the dealer.

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  1. P J Roberts says:
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    It is a fallacy that one must go to the dealer to have a check engine light issue handled. Any competent independent shop can do the work and turn out the light. The smallest mom and pop shops may not be capable of performing this service, but good shops invest thousands of dollars in education, information systems, and equipment in order to properly service and correctly repair their customers’ vehicles. Some, like us, specialize in certain makes and invest in proprietary (dealer equivalent) scan tools that help us solve problems that generic scan tools cannot. We have seen a major shift over the years from undercar service to electronic systems diagnosis and repair. That trend will continue and will shake out the shops who can’t or won’t adapt to an ever changing evnironment. Mechanically, cars are getting more reliable, but the proliferation of electronic gadgets will ensure that they will still fail in some form or fashion and that those failures will be much more expensive to repair.