The Chevrolet Volt has had just one recall since its introduction four years ago. The problem, a faulty brake valve, affected just four cars, making it one of the smallest recalls in history.
But General Motors has fixed other problems on thousands of Volts for free through at least eight customer-satisfaction campaigns, which are less public than recalls and largely unregulated.
The repairs included reinforcing the battery pack and improving the battery coolant system after a government crash test sparked a widely publicized fire, prompting a congressional hearing and an investigation by federal regulators. Because neither GM nor the regulators determined that the fire was evidence of a safety defect, the automaker didn't have to use the word "recall," follow specific requirements for notifying customers or report how many Volts got fixed.
Customer-satisfaction campaigns, sometimes called "secret warranties" or "silent recalls" because consumers aren't always told of them, are used frequently across the industry -- not just at GM -- particularly as complex technology leads to more unforeseen hiccups after a vehicle goes on sale.
But big recalls by GM and Toyota Motor Corp. in recent years raise questions about whether dangerous problems could lurk in little-noticed service bulletins or customer-satisfaction campaigns, which aren't supposed to be used for safety-related defects.
"There's a ton of stuff that goes under the radar screen in the form of technical service bulletins and goodwill campaigns and customer-service campaigns and hidden warranties," said Gabriel Shenhar, a senior auto test engineer with Consumer Reports. "It's to the benefit of the consumer to have it done as a recall, so it doesn't go under the radar screen."
Many customer-satisfaction campaigns are, in fact, for relatively minor, potentially annoying issues that could affect the driver's comfort or the vehicle's appearance but wouldn't result in a crash; GM used one for the Volt to remedy a weather-related shortage of carpeted floor mats.
But conflict can arise when regulators and the public disagree with an automaker's stance that a particular problem has no safety implications -- if they ever find out about the problem at all. Touch screens, for example, typically have been addressed without recalls, but as cameras and other features that help drivers avoid crashing are added to those screens, malfunctions can have more hazardous consequences.
"There is not a sharp line between a service campaign and safety recall," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. Ditlow said the $1.2 billion penalty imposed on Toyota this year over its unintended-acceleration crisis, multiple ongoing investigations of GM's ignition recalls and greater scrutiny by regulators may compel automakers to use recalls for cases in which they might have acted with less urgency in the past.
"If you're looking at a billion-dollar fine, it changes your calculus," he said. "I think we're going to see more safety recalls and fewer service campaigns, but the service campaign is never going to go away."