How automakers respond to technical issues can seem a mystery. Some problems can be addressed with a technical service bulletin and redesigned parts, while others warrant a recall. Nissan's Jim Blenkarn peels back the curtain.
On the recall process needing an overhaul
We have some real challenges. NHTSA requires us to announce recalls to the public in a certain time frame. Sometimes we don't even have the parts. It's embarrassing when a customer hears about it on the Internet and they will not have received a notification letter.
Then they go to the dealer wanting to get their vehicle fixed, and we don't have the part. They might want a loaner car because they don't feel safe in their vehicle. It's a mess.
On using a technical service bulletin to replace faulty parts instead of a recall
Once the TSB is authored and ready to go, it is held until the parts are in stock. The problem is, NHTSA announces a recall; there is a cadence now, but it is tight, and you don't get a lot of extra time to get parts.
As a practical matter, most of our suppliers work with just-in-time delivery. Now, all of a sudden, you come out and say: "We need 5,000 more widgets to satisfy this action we are going to take." They don't have that production capacity in their pocket. Even for the best suppliers, that's a 16-week delivery time frame, to do production reallocation and get whatever parts and materials they need.
There's engineering risk when you do that because a supplier goes out of process mode and into ramp-up mode. They are trying to produce parts as fast as they can. Now you are out of process, and errors could be made.
On how bulletins are generated
It isn't so much by incident as by how a repair is going to be made. There's an issue, and there's a countermeasure. Do we need to go through this flow chart to determine if it is going to be reported?
There is only going to be a TSB if we have a way to fix it and it is not something techs are already doing. Many repairs do not have a TSB because techs are replacing the correct part. It's just that the part they are replacing has some issue and the new part fixes it.
On how quality is improved by having suppliers' engineers at Nissan's Field Quality Center examine parts that are returned under warranty
Some are here full time; some are part time. They are expected to collect their parts and investigate them and do reports and work directly with the [Nissan] engineer who is assigned to their part.
On how Nissan monitors quality after a vehicle is launched
For the first six months, sometimes longer, of every new product, we have a team that focuses strictly on the product and examines every claim that comes in for that vehicle model. Our engineers have to target reporting something if it is a 0.5 incident rate. That's our threshold.
When you do a service action, you just made that a 100 percent incident rate. It has to be applied judiciously. A huge incident rate for us is 10 percent. That's what in field quality we would consider a very large rate, even though 90 percent will never have the incident.
On the Takata airbag inflator recall
That's a latent durability issue that is happening in a unique environment in high-humidity locations. It isn't even across the country. Certainly, Takata didn't do that maliciously.
It speaks to using the best engineering data you have. That's all you can really do, to be honest. It is certainly going to change the way we do durability testing. Obviously, we're going to do more humidity testing and those kinds of things.
On how new technology in electric vehicles and autonomous cars will affect technical service bulletins, customer service actions and recalls
The more wear items you remove, that reduces the onus on the customer to maintain those items. But as technology increases, I am not sure there will be fewer [issues]. Just the type and style of issues are different.
Chasing software bugs can be frustrating. Sometimes, it is the input you don't expect that is difficult — [it] happens only in unique circumstances, only at certain times, only in ambient conditions. There are lots of things that can happen that can make it difficult for an engineer to identify.
On vehicle quality in general
As a consumer product, the automobile has fewer incident rates than just about anything else we can talk about. There are not many consumer products that live in a harsher environment.