Auto Makers Look at Ways to Improve Recall Numbers

Robo calls, social media ads, personal letters from the CEO and even a smartphone app are among ways auto companies are trying to convince more customers to get repairs done on cars recalled for serious safety defects.

The unusual steps were discussed at a forum Tuesday held by government safety regulators who are frustrated over what they say is an unacceptably low rate of recall repairs.

In some recalls for problems as serious as airbags that can spew shrapnel into drivers or fuel tanks that can rupture in a rear-end crash, completion rates are below 15 percent, six months or more after the recalls were announced.

Those recalls involve millions of vehicles, challenging automakers to find replacement parts and the cars’ owners. Regulators at times have fined automakers for dragging their feet, while concerned car owners are left waiting for repairs and worrying about their safety.

On average, automakers fix three out of four cars covered by a recall in 18 months. Mark Rosekind, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief since December, wants to get that repair rate to 100 percent. So Tuesday he asked auto companies and safety advocates for their recommendations.

General Motors, once fined by NHTSA for moving too slowly to recall small cars with faulty ignition switches, was praised for using new methods to reach owners.

GM said that as of early April, 70 percent of the U.S. small-car owners had been in for the service, 14 months after the recalls began. The switches, which can slip out of the run position by surprise and cause an engine to stall, are linked to at least 90 deaths.

GM started the recall slowly because its parts supplier had to equip factories to make switches for 2.6 million cars like the Chevrolet Cobalt.

But GM customer relations executive Julie Heisel said it boosted the rate by going beyond the usual recall letter, adding emails, human and automated telephone calls and social media. For example, the company checked its database of small-car owners against people using Facebook, AOL and other social media sites, she said.

“When someone goes on one of those websites and there’s a match, we push an ad to that consumer” about the recalls, she said.

One Ford official said the company is developing an app to make it easier for cars to be repaired, while a Chevrolet dealer said he opened Saturdays for service and offered free oil changes.

But reluctant owners are just part of the issue. In the past three years, 17 million vehicles have been recalled because airbag inflators from Takata Corp. or Japan can explode with too much force, blowing apart a metal canister.

Honda, Takata’s largest customer, said it has fixed 19 percent of the recalled inflators. Some of the recalls date to 2013. The issue: Getting replacement parts to Honda and nine other automakers that use the inflators. Honda and Takata have lined up other suppliers to make inflators, and Takata says it has increased production.

Meanwhile, Honda owners are being turned away by dealers, leaving some afraid to drive their vehicles.

Lynn Jones-Finn, a retired child welfare worker from Berkeley, California, has been driving her 2001 Honda Civic for years without incident. She received a recall notice March 31 and contacted her dealer in mid-April, only to be told parts wouldn’t be available for at least three weeks.

“I’m disappointed in Honda because I trusted Honda,” she said. “I’m not happy they’re not moving to fix it when they say it could kill me.”

The dealer has since offered her a loaner car, which she plans to use.

NHTSA, Takata and the auto industry are trying to pinpoint what’s causing the inflator problems.

Takata has been fined $14,000 per day by NHTSA since Feb. 20 for allegedly dumping documents on the agency without the legally required explanation of what’s in them. The fines are approaching $1 million.

Rosekind said Takata is being “a little bit more forthcoming,” but “it’s still not sufficient.” NHTSA likely will take further action on Takata soon, he said.

In another big recall, Fiat Chrysler said recently it has fixed only a fraction of 1.56 million older Jeeps with gas tanks behind the rear axle. The tanks are vulnerable to puncture in a rear-end crash. The company is installing trailer hitches to protect the tanks in low-speed crashes.

NHTSA may reopen its investigation into the Jeeps.

“Here’s an opportunity to do whatever we need to do as aggressively as we need to do it to save lives,” Rosekind said after the gathering. A NHTSA work group will come up with Jeep recommendations in a few weeks.

Chrysler maintains the Jeeps are safe.

Rosekind is meeting with GM CEO Mary Barra and other CEOs in Detroit this week to discuss changing the industry’s safety culture, he said. Rosekind said he’ll deliver a message that if problems persist that call for enforcement, “We’re going to use every tool available.”