The recent onslaught of recalls and investigations will have repercussions for years and they will impact your shop. After looking at recent Technical Service Bulletins (TSB), I think these recalls may have scared some OEMs from issuing TSBs, or any corrective action, because they could be the start of a lawsuit, bad PR and maybe executives losing their jobs.
The TSB as we know it has been around since the 1970s and can be a useful tool for repairing a vehicle. They are typically the collaboration of an engineer, technician and maybe a field warranty rep. Some TSBs are even requested by the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The typical TSB is written with the goal of communicating a common or anticipated problem and the best repair or diagnostic path that takes the least amount of time.
Most TSBs create a “win-win” situation where customers get their car repaired right the first time and technicians can be more productive. But some OEMs are starting to see TSBs as an admission of a defect. To these people, the word “defect” is closely associated with the words “liability” and “lawsuit.” Professional technicians look at TSBs as a guide to an unanticipated problem that was discovered after the vehicle was released into the real world. It is a tool, not a confession.
At the heart of the GM ignition switch problem was a design change to make the keys easier to turn. Some focus group in the 1990s thought the ignition key on some GM vehicles was hard to turn compared to some imports. Engineering made some changes to the switch so that it required less torque to operate, but it also made it easier to turn the switch in the opposite direction and out of the run position.
This dramatically increases the potential for rollaway and stalling, which disables the airbag, and therefore increases the risk of accidents, injuries and deaths.
GM decided to manage the situation by issuing a TSB #05-02-35-007A in 2005 to admit there was an issue, but it advised that the situation was caused by short drivers and heavy key rings. The solution was to change the key’s slot into a hole and advise customers to sit back and put their key rings on a diet. Most GM dealer technicians knew the problem went a lot deeper than the proposed solution.
The real rub with TSB #05-02-35-007A was that it was an attempt to absolve GM from having to replace the ignition switch and put the blame on the driver. It violated the sacred trust that most technicians at dealerships and independent shops have with the TSB system.
GM’s internal estimates linked 13 fatalities to this issue, but the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration expects its investigation to reveal a higher final number.
This recall affected 2005-‘10 Chevrolet Cobalt, 2006-‘11 Chevrolet HHR, 2006-‘10 Pontiac Solstice, 2007-‘10 Pontiac G5, 2003-‘07 Saturn Ion, 2007-‘10 Saturn Sky.
Regulators fined GM a record $35 million, the maximum allowed, for not reporting the issue in a timely manner. The company reserved $1.7 billion to pay for the recall repairs.
It is critical for automakers to make TSBs available to technicians in an unfiltered and unbiased manner so they can fix the OEM’s vehicles. Every automaker must remember that even if the vehicle is out of warranty or not being serviced at a dealer, it’s still their vehicle and brand that is at stake, even if the vehicle is 11 years old.
NHTSA needs to commit more resources to the TSB process it oversees and broaden the scope of its investigations from not just safety issues, but to consumer issues and how OEMs communicate with the auto care industry and shops.
In my opinion, there are fewer relevant TSBs being released than five years ago. Some OEMs are even trying to circumvent the TSB issue by releasing TSB-worthy fixes in internal dealership communications or monthly newsletters that do not have to be shared with the NHTSA and service information providers. This robs shops of critical information needed to repair vehicles, not just today, but for years to come.
The real shame of it is this has happened before, and it will happen again.