WASHINGTON -- It looked like a scene from a corporate focus-group meeting.
In a Department of Transportation room usually reserved for press conferences, long sheets of easel paper were tacked to the walls, each page filled with lists of ideas written in marker, and clusters of round colored stickers indicating the group's favorites.
The participants were a motley group of players representing the auto industry, safety advocates, federal regulators and others, dozens in all. Their assignment? Figure out ways to make sure that more recalled vehicles get fixed.
Among the suggestions that garnered the most stickers:
- Making a vehicle's registration renewal contingent on completing recall repairs.
- Using digital messages and other media to supplement notification letters.
- Upgrading the government's online recall database to allow for searches of multiple vehicles at a time.
- Assigning risk levels to recalls to make the serious ones stand out.
The brainstorm capped an unusual summit hosted last week by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and aimed at reforming the nation's auto recall system, an issue that has taken on new urgency in the wake of high-profile safety crises involving ignition switches and airbags. The attendees included American Honda government affairs chief Ed Cohen, safety advocate Sean Kane, National Automobile Dealers Association regulatory and legislative affairs boss Andrew Koblenz, former NHTSA enforcement official Alan Kam and dozens more stakeholders in the recall system.
For NHTSA head Mark Rosekind, it was also a chance to signal that the agency he took over in late December is determined to speed progress on those reforms by forging consensus on steps that can be deployed quickly by the various stakeholders.
"It's great to talk about collaboration and shared responsibility," Rosekind said. "For me the bottom line is let's see the actions."
Last year, the auto industry recalled more than 60 million vehicles in the U.S., doubling the previous record, a sign of heightened vigilance on safety. Yet despite the publicity generated by the General Motors ignition switch and Takata airbag recalls, roughly a quarter of recalled cars are never repaired, a shortfall that grows dramatically as vehicles age.
Among the reasons: owner apathy, the difficulty of locating a vehicle's second and third owners, the timing of recall notices and parts shortages.
The goal for federal transportation officials is nothing less than a 100 percent completion rate on recall repairs. "Recalls are only successful and can only save lives if they end up getting the cars fixed," Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx told a gathering of about 200 in the nine-story atrium inside DOT headquarters.
The diversity of stakeholders invited to the recall summit, and the range of obstacles they cited, underscored that the solutions weren't likely to come from Washington alone.
Participants in the breakout session broadly agreed that tying vehicle registrations to recall repairs would require congressional leadership to shepherd a bipartisan bill.
Better communication with customers was another key theme. Dan Ryan, Mazda's vice president of government affairs, said that automakers would like guidance from NHTSA about writing recall notifications with language that more clearly conveys the degree of risk posed by a defect, while still complying with the law.
For GM's recalls, customer-relations director Julie Heisel led a marketing and customer relationship management team that crafted customized outreach plans to draw more customers to dealerships for repairs. Her team sent 16 versions of letters written by CEO Mary Barra urging customers to replace their ignition switches, each version with language customized to the recipient. GM also pushed targeted ads to some Cobalt owners on Facebook and YouTube, Heisel said. One Cobalt owner was shown a popup ad when playing the game Words With Friends on a smartphone, she said.
The extra effort was needed, Heisel said, because despite the 98 percent awareness of the switch recall, "we weren't getting enough action."
Honda analyzed 14 of its recall campaigns covering 8 million vehicles and found that while 80 percent of cars in their first year of ownership get fixed after recalls, that rate plummets to 33 percent by the ninth and 10th years, said Bruce Smith, senior vice president of American Honda's parts, service and technical division.
David Bakos, GM's executive director of sales and marketing, customer care and aftersales, echoed those difficulties, noting that some owners, especially of defunct GM brands such as Pontiac and Hummer, didn't know where to go for their repairs.
Automakers say they're also struggling to get the timing right. A 2013 change in the law requires automakers to notify owners of a recall within 60 days of reporting it to NHTSA, compared with the "reasonable time" standard previously. But that creates problems when parts aren't readily available, as was the case with the GM ignition switch and Takata airbag recalls.
One working group in the brainstorming session suggested timing the release of recall notifications to when parts were available. Others suggested sending out interim notifications as a heads-up that a formal recall notice would be coming in the future.
The day after the summit, NHTSA did just that, issuing a public advisory alerting owners of certain Ford vehicles to watch for a coming recall notice about defective door latches, and offering instructions on how to handle problems in the meantime.