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John Ducker: Recalls prove auto safety isn't guaranteed

Auto manufacturers have a long history of faulty vehicles.
Takata, a huge safety component maker, was forced into bankruptcy in 2017 after making potentially faulty airbags. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

When I was young I loved the Chevy Vega. I can’t explain why exactly. It was something to do with its body shape, a kind of near perfect blend of functionality with just a hint of sportiness. Ironically, it was a car that proved to be neither sporty nor actually functional.

So it’s a good thing I never owned one, because they were one of the all time greatest lemonmobiles to ever hit the street.

The Vega had a good reputation until 1969 — then the wheels came off. It wasn’t actually the wheels, it was worse . It was the engine itself. It didn’t like to stay where it belonged — attached to the frame of the car.

Defective mounts caused the engine to break free, making the accelerator linkage open, accelerating the engine even more, which in turn caused the engine to lift so far up that it pressed against the hood of the vehicle and stopped running.

Instead of properly replacing the defective engine mounts, GM tried to slide one by government regulators by installing a cheap cable system, which cost them $ per car, to force the engine to stay put. In the end lawmakers saw through it and forced GM into one of the largest recalls ever — 6.6 million cars.

Many people of my generation will remember the tragedy of the Ford Pinto.

Ford rushed this compact model into the North American market in 1971 to try and stem the flow of Japanese and European imports. However, that rush job created one of the most devastating flaws in auto manufacturing history. To make things worse, investigations discovered that Ford was well aware of the problem beforehand.

In a rear-end collision the fuel filler “neck” would separate from the gas tank, causing fuel to spray into the passenger compartment and ignite. Ford knew about the defect before the model was actually produced but ignored the fix, deeming it to be too costly. The cost would have been $11 per car.

Saving that 11 bucks ultimately killed 27 people, forcing Ford to recall 1.5 million Pintos at a cost of $20 million. That does not even factor the personal lawsuit costs which piled on for decades.

GM was hit with another recall tsunami between 2006 and 2014 — 30 million vehicles. It started with the Chevy Cobalt, which was dumped on consumers with a litany of defects.

Some 98,000 Cobalts were recalled in 2007 simply because they failed to meet general U.S. safety standards. In 2010 another 1.3 million were recalled due to faulty power steering systems.

As if those problems weren’t enough, it was later discovered that the Cobalt was equipped with an ignition switch that could disable the car’s safety systems, like airbags and brake assist. Many of these defects were also found to be inherent in several other GM models, which the company had concealed from the public since 2004.

These flaws killed 124 people. The U.S. Department of Transportation fined GM $35 million in 2014. The company also dealt with $1.7 billion in recall costs and had to pony up $550 million to compensate victims.

Toyota is rightly regarded as the most reliable car manufacturers in the world. But it is by no means immune to recalls.

Around 6.5 million Toyotas were recalled in 2015 for faulty window switches that could potentially catch fire. It also suffered through three more recalls in 2009 and 2010 related to “sticking accelerator pedals,” and faulty anti-lock brake software.

Improperly placed floor mats and other mechanical defaults caused gas pedals to stick, forcing cars into uncontrolled acceleration resulting in 16 deaths and costing Toyota $1.2 billion for their efforts in trying to conceal the problem.

However, the grandparents of all recalls belong to Volkswagen for their 2016 “Dieselgate” scandal and to Takata for its airbag fiasco.

VW had to recall 11 million vehicles and was slammed with an estimated $40 billion in compensation costs after they fitted “defeat devices” into VWs and Audis that were deliberately programmed to produce false emissions readings.

Oliver Schmidt, the engineer responsible, was charged criminally and sentenced to 7 years in prison.

Takata, a huge safety component maker, was forced into bankruptcy in 2017 by making faulty airbags which, when exploding, fired shrapnel into vehicle occupants. They were aware of the problem since 2004 yet failed to notify authorities of the problem.

That cost the company $70 million in fines from the U.S. alone. Disturbingly there are estimated to be 42 million defective Takata airbags out there, still to be recalled.

Lesson: nothing’s a guarantee anymore — but a little beforehand research can go a long way. Because $50,000 (plus) lemon leaves a very bitter taste.

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