Effectiveness of past recalls scrutinized

GM digs deep to fix safety problems

Effectiveness of past recalls scrutinized

GM compensation announcement
Lawyer Kenneth Feinberg said he will disclose details of his plan to compensate victims of GM's defective ignition switch during a press conference on Monday in Washington. He isn't expected to attach a total dollar amount to the plan, but the terms of his proposal will go a long way toward determining GM's financial exposure from its handling of the defect.
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DETROIT -- If recalls are a kind of a manufacturer do-over, this month's recall of some Chevrolet Cobalts and HHRs for a power-steering defect was a do-over of a do-over.

General Motors already had ordered a replacement of power-steering components on those cars in a recall action several years ago. Now, it's telling owners that the fix wasn't good enough.

The redo comes as an embarrassment to the company and an annoyance to customers, but it's a sign of how deep GM is digging to uncover and address any latent safety issues amid the scrutiny created by its deadly ignition-switch defect. In addition to accelerating reviews of pending safety issues, GM says it is analyzing past recalls and other "field actions" to see whether it did enough.

About 4 million of the more than 20 million vehicles GM has called back this year are connected to previous recalls, according to a review of records by Automotive News. Among the items GM is examining are recalls that covered only certain versions of a particular nameplate or only some of the models that shared a faulty part.

For example, it recalled Saab 9-3 convertibles for fragile seat belt retractors in mid-June, a decade after 9-3 sedans were recalled for the same issue.

As it pores through issues both old and new, GM is weighing complaint rates less heavily than it tended to in the past, focusing more on the nature and possible consequences of problems, even if evidence suggests they are rare.

"They're being overly aggressive in taking care of these," said Alec Gutierrez, senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book. "With the level of scrutiny they're under right now, they would prefer that cars have zero risk right now. Even if there's a one-in-a-million chance, they're going to go ahead" with a recall.

A single incident


Some of GM's recent recalls were spurred by engineering inquiries launched after a single incident. That was the case last week with the Chevrolet Cruze, which GM recalled less than two months after a driver sued over injuries blamed on an errant airbag.

GM also recalled about 145,000 new Chevrolet Malibus after a test on an upcoming model found a problem with a brake boost system that the cars share; and it called back 662 Cadillac ELRs after one of the new plug-ins failed programming at the assembly plant.

"It really is, in the broadest possible sense, are there issues out there that we need to address?" explained GM spokesman Jim Cain. "And if we took action in the past, was it sufficient to correct the problem?"

Of 37 recalls this year for which GM posted detailed chronologies as of Friday, June 27, six were approved less than a month after the company first identified or learned of a problem. Eleven followed less than two months of investigation, while 14 of the issues had lingered for more than a year. The swiftest recalls generally cover a small number of vehicles, while all eight campaigns affecting more than 1 million vehicles came after at least two years of study.

Recall rundown
GM announced 4 recalls Friday, June 27, covering 428,200 U.S. vehicles
• 2013-14 Chevrolet Cruze: 29,000 vehicles, to replace faulty airbag inflator
• 2014-15 Chevy and GMC 4wd pickups and SUVs: 392,500 vehicles, including 2014 Silverado/ Sierra light-duty; 2015 Silverado/ Sierra heavy-duty; and 2015 Suburban, Tahoe, Yukon and Yukon XL, to recalibrate transfer case software
• 2013-14 Chevy Caprice police cars, 2014 Chevy SS: 4,800 vehicles, to inspect and, if necessary, replace windshield wiper module
• 2014 Chevy Camaro: 1,900 vehicles, to replace shock absorbers

The chronologies GM filed for several of the recalls reveal long lulls before renewed interest this spring. After calling back Malibus, Saturn Auras and Pontiac G6s for transmission shift-cable failures in September 2012, for example, GM responded to questions about the problem from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in early 2013, but no other action is listed for the rest of last year.

Then, four months ago, GM said it began searching for more complaints about the issue, and an examination of warranty claims in April found that the 2012 recall and a special-coverage campaign were inadequate. GM recalled about 60,000 more Auras on April 22 and, after further study, 1.22 million more Malibus and G6s on May 19.

Likewise, GM showed that, beyond monitoring warranty claims and complaints, it took little action in 2013 related to a long-running NHTSA investigation into Saturn Ion power-steering problems.

But a few weeks after GM added the Ion to the Cobalt ignition-switch recall, it set up a "collaboration room" to review power-steering data for the Ion and other cars with the same system. Eight days later, GM recalled 1.51 million cars.

As part of that action, it determined that some replacement motors installed during a 2010 power-steering recall were defective. GM is also recalling part of the replacement steering column installed in some Malibus, G6s and Auras under an earlier customer-satisfaction campaign.

More investigators


GM global safety chief Jeff Boyer -- who assumed that newly created role in March -- has said beefing up the company's investigative team in the wake of the ignition-switch recall has helped the company reassess old problems while also more closely scrutinizing vehicles fresh off the assembly line.

Boyer said GM is doing that in part by nearly tripling the number of product investigators, to around 60: "We now have the capacity as well as the deep capability and expertise to help us through the existing investigations that we have in front of us."

For potential safety flaws on newer vehicles, Boyer said, GM isn't waiting for a "defect trend" to emerge from crash reports or lawsuits that point to a high incidence rate.

"We're not only looking at frequency, but they have to be based on the seriousness of the potential defect as well," he said in May. "We like to call them 'buds of problems.' By being proactive, we can understand what those issues are, do some analysis, and that may lead to future investigations."

For example, GM's recall of 29,019 Cruze compacts from the 2013 and 2014 model years to fix airbag inflators built with an incorrect part was prompted by a lawsuit served to GM on May 1. The plaintiff claimed an injury from an "improperly deployed" airbag in a 2013 Cruze, according to the defect notice GM filed with NHTSA.

GM inspected the vehicle within four days, conferred with airbag supplier Takata Corp. four days after that, assigned a product investigator by the end of May and approved a recall June 23.

You can reach Mike Colias at mcolias@crain.com.

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