Consumers rely on auto manufacturers to issue recalls when an item on their vehicle models are found to be unsafe. Federal law, administered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), requires automobile manufacturers to remedy recall issues at no charge to the vehicle owner, making the issuance of such recalls a lengthy and costly process. It should be no surprise then that GM has found a way to skirt this process by issuing “technical service bulletins” rather than recalls.
Misuse of Technical Service Bulletins
Auto manufacturers often issue bulletins to automotive service shops about mechanical problems, ranging from leaky hoses to problematic air conditioner switches, along with instructions for repairing such issues. Most of these technical service bulletins address non-safety matters, but a problem arises when auto manufacturers use these non-public communications to quietly take care of problems, avoiding a costly recall. Former head of the NHTSA, Joan Claybrook, recognizes that technical service bulletins have been widely used to avoid recalls.
The Problem with GM
In 2005, GM issued a technical service bulletin to warn automotive service shops that seven car models from 2003 to 2007, including the Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5, may stall suddenly due to faulty ignition switches. The bulletin stated the problem occurred most frequently with short drivers, and those who have heavy key chains. The recommended fix provided a part number for a replacement key ring and insert developed by GM engineers to address the issue. It was not until February 2014, after at least 13 deaths had been caused by the faulty ignition, that GM recalled millions of Cobalts and other small car models. GM Chief Executive Officer, Mary Barra, publicly apologized, claiming “something went wrong” with the process, and “terrible things happened.”
A History of Handholding and Reprimands
The NHTSA’s top defects investigator, Frank Borris, penned a July 2013 email to Carmen Benavides, GM’s Director of Product Investigations, in which he rebuked GM for slow communication and failure to act. The email stated GM requires more effort than their auto manufacturing peers. Borris reprimanded GM for utilizing the gray area of the service bulletin in 2012 to address a safety concern over defective air bags in the Chevrolet Cruze, Buick Verano, and other models. That safety issue eventually led to the recall of thousands of cars by November 2013.
GM Says Safety First
Ms. Barra asserts that safety is a fundamental value at GM. When asked at a Senate hearing in March 2014 whether the company’s nine-year failure to issue a recall to address the faulty ignition switches was a one-time occurrence, Barra asserted it was an extraordinary situation, then stated GM has been quick to act in the safety recall process in many cases. Independent investigations, such as one conducted by the NY Times, have turned up many instances in which GM issued service bulletins instead of safety recalls, with the time gap ranging from a few months to nine years.
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