On recalls, Honda goes the extra mile

Photo credit: AUTOMOTIVE NEWS ILLUSTRATION

WASHINGTON — It took a while for Honda Motor Co. to recognize the scope of its problem with bad Takata airbag inflators, but after it started issuing recalls, the company has led the way in finding affected vehicles and getting their owners to come in for repairs.

The automaker has employed a series of innovative initiatives to locate the millions of potentially deadly inflators that still need to be replaced.

It aggressively lined up other suppliers besides Takata to build up sufficient inventory of inflators for needed repairs, while shortages among competitors often force people to wait months for a repair.

Honda also has partnered with states to piggyback vehicle inspections and made home visits to notify people that their vehicles have a serious defect.

Jason Levine, executive director at the Center for Auto Safety, says Honda should be applauded for its efforts now, “but they also dragged their feet on the front end. If they hadn’t been in denial over the problem when it was first called to their attention, there would have been less need to take extraordinary measures.”

It wasn’t until November 2014 that Honda upgraded a repair campaign covering 13 nameplates to a formal recall in the U.S. Back in 2009, the automaker recalled a relatively small number of vehicles with defective airbags, only to follow months later with a wider callback. Honda says bad information from Takata contributed to the delays.

Such a response to a safety defect, Levine said, sends a mixed message to consumers and makes it difficult to get their attention back if the remedy is upgraded to a full recall.

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Honda’s strategies

Here are some approaches Honda has used to find and fix vehicles with recalled airbag inflators.

  • Dedicated website: Hondaairbaginfo.com
  • Social media, including a Facebook tool that can match encrypted email addresses associated with VINs to Facebook users
  • Ad campaign targeted at 9 southern states, including stadium signage
  • Investigative firms hired to locate registered owners
  • Offering tow service to the dealership if an owner is hesitant to drive
  • Door-to-door visits
  • Reaching out to independent repair shops asking them to check VINs and complete recalls
  • Having repair-estimate software automatically provide Takata recall information whenever an independent body shop enters a recalled VIN for an estimate
  • Mail alerts from Florida DMV
  • Partnership with Washington, D.C., DMV to replace inflators during emissions inspections
  • Urging states to print recall information on emissions and safety inspection reports
  • Buying bad airbag modules from junkyards
  • Alerts via text message and HondaLink smartphone app

Source: Honda, congressional testimony and interviews

Federal safety regulator NHTSA recently rejected a petition by Ford Motor Co. to delay recalling about 3 million vehicles with potentially defective airbag inflators to conduct additional testing, as well as Mazda’s request covering 6,000 vehicles.

“We’re not at a point where there’s a leader in best practices on a consistent basis,” Levine said. “It appears that the better responses occur either when it’s a small number of affected vehicles so that it doesn’t hurt their bottom line too much, or a massive problem that involves courts, congressional hearings and bad publicity.

“And what we’d like to see is that level of commitment and energy into all these recalls,” he said. “There’s a pattern of waiting until you are forced to do something and it’s bad for business.”

The Center for Auto Safety in November petitioned NHTSA to investigate stalling problems in Chrysler Pacifica minivans and order Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to recall them. The company has not identified the source of the failures, and dealers have asked some owners to continuing driving the vehicles with data recorders.

At a minimum, automakers are required to notify vehicle owners of a recall by mail. But companies can do more, such as researching databases to identify nonoriginal owners, making phone calls, alerting owners via social media or advertising and offering rental cars until replacement parts are available.

Of all the automakers that used defective Takata inflators, Honda has been the most successful at reaching owners and completing repairs.

The company has a big incentive to take care of the Takata problem — all but one of the 18 deaths worldwide that have so far been linked to Takata airbags were in Hondas.

The automaker has the largest number of affected vehicles because it was the first 16 years ago to adopt dual-stage inflators, designed to make airbags deploy at different speeds depending on the circumstances, well ahead of a regulatory mandate.

Levine: Honda?s efforts commendable, ?but they also dragged their feet on the front end.?

‘Alpha’ inflators

Those first-generation, or “alpha,” inflators pose an increased risk because the propellant can deteriorate quickly in high heat and humidity. Experts have estimated that these inflators have a 50 percent chance of exploding when a deployment is triggered. High sales volumes and long-lasting vehicles mean many older Accords, Civics and CR-Vs are still on the road with alpha inflators.

Honda estimates that about 130,000 unrepaired vehicles with alpha inflators remain on the road.

John Buretta, the attorney monitoring the Takata recall on NHTSA’s behalf, has pushed Honda to try new remedies in high-risk climate areas.

In the U.S., 11.4 million Hondas and Acuras have been recalled, and the number will continue to rise as NHTSA expands the program on a rolling basis based on the vehicle’s age and geographic location. Early replacement inflators also will have to be replaced with updated versions that contain a moisture retardant. Honda so far has repaired 11.3 million airbags, or 64 percent of the affected parts — a much higher completion rate than any other large manufacturer — according to agency data. And the company says it has completed 75 percent of repairs for the alpha inflators.

Florida is ground zero for the alpha inflator danger because it is a high-humidity state with a large population of Honda and Acura vehicles. Company officials say there has been a concerted effort to reach owners through reminder letters and phone calls, but responsiveness continues to lag that in other states. At Honda’s request, the Florida Division of Motor Vehicles in summer 2016 sent letters to Honda-identified owners alerting them about the problem and urging them to go to a dealership for the free repair.

“Our theory was that having the imprimatur of the state might serve as motivation,” Edward Cohen, Honda’s vice president of government and industry relations, said.

Frustrated by the difficulty of reaching second and third owners who are unaware their vehicles have been recalled, Honda officials began exploring ways to leverage state registration and inspection systems as a touch point.

They found a willing partner in Lucinda Babers, the director of the District of Columbia Department of Motor Vehicles. When approached about a letter campaign like the one in Florida, Babers proposed an additional idea: Invite owners for an appointment to get an emissions inspection and airbag repair at the same time. Honda would provide technicians to replace the inflators and the DMV would provide staff to do inspections on a Monday — normally an off day.

The district requires vehicles to pass emissions inspections every two years. There are no dealerships in the city, so all residents must take their cars to the DMV’s inspection station.

Honda supplied the vehicle identification numbers of vehicles with alpha inflators and the DMV ran those against vehicles with inspections due within 90 days.

Sixteen people received invitation letters, and five responded. In addition to taking care of two chores at once, they didn’t have to wait in line for what is normally first-come, first-serve inspection service.

On the day of the event in April, Honda offered coffee and doughnuts and checked the VIN to determine the exact inflator the vehicle needed. Technicians from Rosenthal Landmark Honda in nearby Alexandria, Va., did the work.

Knock knock

Elsewhere, Honda is sending out “recall pit crews.” After more than 141 million attempts to reach affected customers by conventional means, Honda is trying door-to-door outreach for owners of certain older vehicles who did not respond to multiple recall notices.

Honda employees will take the vehicle to a dealership and return it to the customer within a few hours.

The company said in August that it is now expanding the grassroots program nationwide, with a team of more than 500 dedicated staff.

Insurance companies have begun cooperating with Honda to facilitate removal of Takata inflators before vehicles go into the auction market.

Honda is working with auction companies Copart and Insurance Auto Auctions, which sell totaled vehicles that may later be either reconditioned or scrapped by whoever buys them from insurance auctions, to identify vehicles with open Takata recalls and give Honda an opportunity to complete the repairs. But the insurance companies, which own the vehicles, must grant permission to complete any repairs. Seven major insurers are now authorizing those repairs, American Honda spokesman Chris Martin said.

Separately, Honda has worked for a few years with auto salvage yards to purchase airbag modules that contain recalled Takata inflators in fully scrapped vehicles. It’s illegal to sell a recalled part for use in a vehicle, but the practice continues, Martin said.

The effort has successfully removed more than 80,000 inflators from salvage yards, according to Honda. The company has also requested that major online auction sites stop the sale of affected airbags.

Recall approaches vary from country to country, depending on requirements and available data, Martin said. Some countries lack robust vehicle databases, making it difficult to find owner information. “There is no single recall playbook that works in every market,” he said.

Honda is going to extraordinary lengths to address the alpha inflators because of the imminent danger they pose, but it can’t justify duplicating those efforts for the average recall.

“It’s difficult to commit that what we are doing for the alphas would become the norm,” Martin said. “We just haven’t seen that level of risk for other recalls. It’s a unique situation with the alphas, resulting in unique efforts to get that fixed. It’s a very time-consuming and resource-consuming activity.”