Earlier this year, I stood in the crowd at Tesla’s booth on media day at Detroit’s auto show, waiting for what I thought would be a first glance at the highly-anticipated Model X.
That didn’t happen. Instead, a Tesla spokesman talked about the company itself, including its disagreement with the U.S. safety administration over a recall that tweaks the car’s software to avoid the possibility of overheating during recharging.
Tesla cars can connect to their home base through the Internet, and it was possible to recalibrate the settings through a download. Owners also received an adapter through the mail. Tesla founder Elon Musk argued that the fix wasn’t a “recall” because the cars didn’t have to be driven back to the dealer for repair.
He may have a point, but beyond that, perhaps it’s also time to look at recalls themselves, and come up with a two-tier system that could potentially reduce owner concerns and public perception.
Recalls are issued when an auto manufacturer determines a potential problem on a vehicle, such as a part that could break, or a manufacturing process that wasn’t carried out correctly. There’s a possibility—perhaps even a probability—that nothing will go wrong, but all affected parts are replaced or repaired anyway, just to be sure. And that’s how it should be.
But some recalls are extremely minor, and they’re issued only because of vehicle safety standard regulations. If someone at the factory accidentally slaps a U.S.-market, English-only airbag warning sticker on the sun visor, instead of the French-and-English decal required by Canada’s regulations, it will trigger a recall. Ditto if the air pressure placard reads 34 p.s.i. instead of 35, or if a page is missing in the owner’s manual. These are usually just mailed out to owners, instead of requiring them to return to the dealer.
Now, by the letter of the law, these are safety issues, which is why the automaker has to fix them. But a recall is a recall, whether it’s for a steering shaft that could snap while you’re on the highway at 100 km/h, or a warning label that you’ve probably never read in either language. And many consumers don’t know the difference.
“Recall” is a scary word, and unfortunately, a huge number of car owners don’t really understand what they’re all about. For one thing, they’re specific to certain vehicles. In some cases, only a handful of cars are affected, right down to recalls issued for one single car. But during the Toyota “unintended acceleration” series of recalls, I had a woman come up to me in a parking lot while I was getting out of my Highlander test vehicle—one of the models covered by the recall—and ask how I could possibly drive it. She’d gone to the store with a friend because she was too frightened to get behind the wheel of her Toyota minivan. It wasn’t one of the models affected, but she didn’t know that. She’d just heard “Toyota” and “recall” in the same sentence, and that was enough.
Perhaps it’s time to come up with a system that differentiates between a mechanical or computer-flash repair—one which, if not resolved, could potentially leave you stranded or worse—and one that’s essentially just paperwork. Certainly, let’s mail these new stickers out, and warn the automaker not to be so sloppy next time. But we really don’t have to scare people, who just hear “there’s a recall on your vehicle” on the morning news, and then think the worst. Bring your car back, wait by the mailbox, or get the fix from the sky: the reality is that not all recalls are created equal, and it’s time we acknowledged the difference.