Ponder this: One out of every six cars driven on American roads has an unrepaired safety recall. That’s about 63 million vehicles. So as you commute every morning, look around and try to figure out which nearby car has the wonky brakes or malfunctioning steer-by-wire system. It might even be yours, and you don’t even know it.
Sure, not all recalls are safety related. Some might simply entail a misstated emissions label or an infotainment screen that might freeze up—nothing that’s going to lead to a crash. But tens of millions of vehicles still have unrepaired recalls for truly dangerous situations, such as weakened CV joints, lethally explosive airbags, malfunctioning suspension pieces, or cracked fuel lines.
Everyone has seen the headlines regarding the record number of recalls. Some might interpret this as a sign of diminished attention to quality on the assembly line. But that’s not entirely true. Cars are infinitely more intricate than they were 20 years ago, and a manufacturer recalling a vehicle is actually a sign of the automaker doing the right thing by its customers—rather than burying the problem and hoping no one finds out.
The astonishing thing is that it’s still legal to sell a car with an outstanding federal safety recall. That loophole needs to be closed. But like many problems, the solution is complicated.
Recalling a car and getting the car fixed are two very different things. You can’t force car owners to get their cars fixed. At least, not yet.
One reason is that people might not know their car has a recall pending. In the case with older cars, vehicle ownership might have transferred several times, and automakers might not know how to reach current owners due to various states’ byzantine DMV vehicle registration systems and privacy statutes. Or perhaps a car has been subject to several recalls, and the customer ignores the latest notice due to recall fatigue, as some in the industry call it.
In February, the Center for Auto Safety and other consumer groups sued the Federal Trade Commission to stop allowing car dealers to advertise certified pre-owned vehicles with unrepaired safety recalls. That’s a start.
One person trying to help fix the situation is Chris Miller, CEO of Silicon Valley startup Recall Masters. Using digital forensics of more than 50 data sources—including electronic receipts from independent repair shops, tire-store chains, satellite radio subscription rolls, and even dispatch rolls from towing services—Miller’s software then invokes machine learning and data modeling to track down current vehicle owners.
Of course, there’s a money angle. Miller sells the owner data to new-car dealers to install into their data management systems. Miller even offers his own call center to contact vehicle owners and get the recall-service process started so that an overworked dealer doesn’t have to make the call.
“We know severity of recall, how long it takes to repair, whether the car needs a lift to be fixed,” Miller said. “We can walk the customer through this process because they are usually confused, frustrated, and scared.”
But even with recall information in hand, dealers have been terrible at performing recall service.
Miller cites an astonishing statistic: Upward of half the vehicles going to dealerships for maintenance and service work—and which coincidentally have an open recall—get returned to the customer with the recall unrepaired. In some cases, such as with Takata airbags, the spare parts might not be available. But a lot of times, Miller said, the service manager simply doesn’t take the 15 seconds to cross-reference the customer VIN against the recall database.
All of this keeps potentially dangerous vehicles on the roads. But some dealers are trying harder to do the right thing.
In 2015, dealership mega-chain AutoNation announced it would not sell any vehicle with an open recall. But the sheer volume of vehicles subject to the Takata airbag recall meant AutoNation had to modify the policy. Now AutoNation vehicles with unrepaired recalls are given a special sticker to disclose their status.
So how do we ensure dangerous vehicles don’t change hands—whether sold by a dealer or a consumer? The easiest method would be similar to the state smog-check regulations at any transfer of registration. Outstanding recall? Sorry, no sale.
In the interim, consumers can empower themselves when they are about to buy a car. You can look up any car’s VIN on the NHTSA website safercar.gov or at Miller’s nonprofit consumer site motorsafety.org. That way you know if your wheels-to-be have a clean bill of health.