NO SECRETS: Toyota SA CEO Johan van Zyl says the free flow of information in the age of social media means as soon as one consumer finds a fault, it becomes common knowledge. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL
NO SECRETS: Toyota SA CEO Johan van Zyl says the free flow of information in the age of social media means as soon as one consumer finds a fault, it becomes common knowledge. Picture: FINANCIAL MAIL

MILLIONS of people around the world are being advised to return their cars to dealers, to have design faults repaired.

These aren’t one-offs. Experts say vehicle recalls are becoming "the new normal". How did this crisis come about?

Every second, somewhere in the world, nearly two cars are recalled by a manufacturer to fix a potentially deadly fault. In the US alone, one car is recalled every second. Last year, 22-million US cars were recalled. The 2014 number already exceeds 11-million and observers expect a record full-year figure of more than 30-million.

Other countries are less forthcoming but analysts say this year’s global figure could approach 60-million.

Toyota is recalling more than 6-million vehicles — including an estimated 100,000 in South Africa. It is the company’s third mass recall in four years. In 2010, more than 10-million vehicles were involved, and in late 2012, 7-million more.

Problems have included unpredictable accelerators, unreliable driver-seat restraints, faulty anti-lock brakes, and airbags that may not inflate in an accident.

General Motors (GM) is also in the middle of a multimillion-vehicle recall. Among its identified faults are an ignition switch linked to at least 12 deaths in recent years.

No company is immune. Nissan, Honda, Volkswagen, Chrysler, Mercedes-Benz and BMW are among those that have instituted mass recalls. And then there’s Ford.

For sheer variety, it takes some beating. There have been problems with steering, fuel-line leaks, fire risks, windscreen wipers, vehicle frames, unintended acceleration, brakes, carpets, transmission sensors, fuel tank straps and even rust.

This recall flood is raising questions about the quality of modern cars. But are they less safe than older models? Or are car makers simply being more responsible?

One reason, clearly, is fear.

The US government’s recent imposition of a $1.2bn fine against Toyota for its delay in fixing sticky accelerators that led to unintended acceleration and multiple deaths, has shown the industry it can no longer expect slap-on-the-wrist penalties. The fine reflects the fact Toyota was aware of the problem long before it became an issue.

GM is also readying itself for eye-watering penalties after US investigators said the company had been aware of its ignition problem for more than a decade.

The fault relates to the ease with which the key moves inside the ignition. Even the weight of a keyring can act as a pendulum and cause the engine to switch on or off.

US industry executive Karl Brauer recently says the Toyota fine has "changed the thinking on recalls". He observes: "The cost of a recall is a drop in the bucket compared with the cost of what happens if you don’t do it."

In any case, says Toyota South Africa president Johan van Zyl, the rise of social media has made secrets almost impossible to keep. As soon as one consumer finds a fault, it becomes common knowledge.

He says: "We are in a society where information flows freely. Companies need to react quickly."

Recalls, he suggests, show motor companies are responsible. "If we identify a problem, we must recall. We must be proactive."

There no longer seems to be any "if" about it. While big-number recalls grab the headlines, there are dozens of smaller ones going unnoticed. In South Africa, as elsewhere, customers are regularly advised to take vehicles in for checks. Some instances are part of global recall programmes, others are for South Africa-specific issues. Internationally, says Mr Brauer, recalls are set to become "the new normal".

Detroit-based GM spokesman Jim Cain says the technological complexity of modern cars makes fault-free manufacture virtually unachievable. "There are 30,000 parts in a car. Target-zero may be impossible but that does not mean it should not be an objective. The only way to achieve excellence is to pursue perfection."

Mr van Zyl notes that cars used to comprise "an engine and drive-train and brakes and not much else". No longer. A recent PwC consultancy report forecast that electronics will soon account for more than 50% of cars’ total cost. That means more things to go wrong.

Modern manufacturing processes also share blame. Most companies build multiple models off the same engineering platform — meaning cars, sports utilities and even bakkies share the same parts. Sometimes, two or three manufacturers use the same platform. A faulty part or design that might once have affected thousands of vehicles, now hurts millions.

Headlong competition is also a contributor. Ford Europe, which plans to launch 25 new vehicles in five years, is typical of an industry seeking to create permanent excitement. It can be argued that setting such goals places impossible pressures on engineers.

Toyota president Akio Toyoda has admitted many of Toyota’s US recall problems were caused by trying to grow too fast in that market. Mr van Zyl says: "We have acknowledged our mistake and said it will never happen again."

GM, meanwhile, is reorganising its engineering and quality processes. Mr Cain says new durability programmes test parts to more exacting limits. Product development has been streamlined to get rid of "silos" that discouraged teams from talking.

A worrying byproduct of regular recalls is consumer indifference. In the US, it is estimated about 20% of owners already ignore recall notices. There are no figures available for South Africa but Mr van Zyl highlights one pressing reason owners should respond.

"What if you don’t have the fault fixed and it becomes an issue for the person who buys the car from you later? In future there might need to be certification to show you had the fault addressed or you could be liable for what happens to the next owner."