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Observers blame rate on tougher federal rules, wider use of problem-prone computers

By Eric Mayne / The Detroit News

The number of U.S. cars and light trucks recalled rose for a second consecutive year in 2003 even as studies show that overall vehicle and engineering quality has never been better.

Last year, automakers recalled 19.5 million cars and trucks — or 8 percent of all light vehicles in use. The number of recalls issued by automakers also is rising again — reaching 529 in 2003, up from 436 in 2002 and just below the record 541 recalls in 2000, government figures show. In 1990, there were 208 recalls industry-wide.

Experts blame the proliferation on a convergence of issues, including tougher federal reporting requirements, wider use of glitch-prone computers, an ongoing shift to electrical controls from mechanical devices, and a proliferation of new model launches.

But some critics contend automakers and their suppliers are cutting corners to save money in the rush to bring cars and trucks to market faster.

“A large number of recalls is not good, no matter how you cut it,” said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington.

Automakers, on the other hand, said recalls aren’t an accurate quality barometer. They are, however, an indicator of increasing product complexity and advancements in detection, automakers say.

“A typical car from the ‘70s had crank windows and didn’t have air bags — there’s a whole litany of things that have a potential to malfunction. What we’re able to do is spot them earlier,” said Eron Shosteck, spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers Association. “There’s now more computing power in the average car than the Apollo lunar module.”

General Motors Corp. accounted for 7.4 million — or 38 percent — of the 19.5 million vehicles recalled in 2003. GM recalled 4.6 million vehicles in 2002, according to an analysis of National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data.

Toyota Motor Co.p. cut the number of vehicles recalled by 58 percent to 212,252 in 2003 from 496,213 in 2002.

Ford Motor Corp., with 3.4 million vehicles recalled, and DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group, with 2.1 million vehicles recalled, gave Detroit automakers a disproportionately high share of the vehicles recalled industry-wide in 2003.

Many factors can trigger a recall.

Because the operations of automotive suppliers and automakers are so closely integrated, industry observers say recalls may not give a precise picture of an automaker’s engineering proficiency — a subject of scrutiny at this week’s Society of Automotive Engineers World Congress at Cobo Hall. And because an individual recall may affect several model years, they may not reflect current practices.

But they can indicate the responsiveness of an automaker’s quality controls and signal which company is bearing the greatest cost burden.

Defect-related recalls — in which potentially serious safety flaws are identified — fell last year to 13.6 million from 17.6 million in 2002. But “compliance” recalls — prompted by a failure to meet labeling and other rules — led to 3.4 million recalls, second only to 4.8 million in 2000.

GM continues to struggle with recalls. Through the first eight weeks of 2004, the No. 1 automaker has issued four recalls covering 3.4 million vehicles. But 63 percent of the GM vehicles now being recalled are 5 to 7 years old.

GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner said NHTSA is “reacting more quickly” to issues after the Ford-Firestone tire issue “and we seem to be caught up in this. “Is it good?” he said. “No, I don’t like that kind of publicity. What we have to do is put our nose down and keep working on it.”

But of GM’s 27 recalls in 2003, eight involved noncompliance issues — accounting for 2.6 million vehicles. In one recall, 1.7 million GM cars, SUVs, minivans and full-size vans came equipped with operating manuals that didn’t adequately explain a child seat anchorage system.

GM also suffered through the largest single recall last year — 1.8 million GM minivans, pickup trucks and SUVs. NHTSA found that a windshield wiper motor was prone to sudden failure and GM was required to replace a $55 circuit board in every model. While not every individual vehicle affected by a recall may have a problem, NHTSA and automakers cast wide nets to find those that do.

Toyota’s improvement speaks volumes, Ditlow said. “It tells you that Toyota has good quality control,” he added.

“We’ve noticed over the years the Japanese manufacturers are quicker to move on a problem,” Ditlow said.

Despite widespread quality improvements, analysts don’t expect recalls to go away because no existing technology can duplicate real-world conditions, said David Cole, chairman of the Center for Automotive Research.

“A supplier comes in and says, ‘I’ve got this sensational new insulating material for wires.’ Five years from now, you could have a problem nobody foresaw because you have such a difficult time simulating the aging process,” Cole said.
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