Consider the following scenario.
The owner of a Chevrolet brings the car to a dealership, saying its brakes have been locking up. An engineer discovers that a brake valve in the car has a hole in the wrong spot because it was loaded into the wrong machine in manufacturing and cannot properly relieve the brake fluid pressure when the driver slams on the brakes.
In the past, an automaker might have recalled the model and inconvenienced tens of thousands of owners, despite thinking just a few cars had the defect. Or it might have let the defect slide, putting a few customers at risk of a crash.
But when that exact scenario unfolded this year, with a 2012 Chevrolet Volt brought in for a warranty repair in Europe, General Motors had a third, better option.
On May 30, the automaker assigned an engineer to dig into a database that tracks the parts used in its cars, and it collected manufacturing records from the supplier -- in this case, TRW Automotive. Within a month, GM had identified all the cars on U.S. soil with the faulty valve, called their owners and sent a formal notice to the U.S. government.
That is a quick turnaround, but what was more striking was this: The total number of cars touched by the U.S. recall was four. Not 4 million. Not 4,000. Four.