Understanding Automotive Recalls

When is a Recall not a Recall? Where do you find a list of recalls, and what are some of the more important recent automotive recalls?

News Limited recently broke the following 'exclusive' story: “Hyundai recalls 227,000 cars in Australia”. (Reference here.)


The only problem with that headline is: Hyundai hasn’t actually done that. The independent umpire on recalls (the Department of Transport) has determined the defect isn’t a safety issue, so Hyundai is dealing with it in-house as a ‘service campiagn’ with the matter independently being denied a listing in the ACCC’s recalls website (www.recalls.gov.au). 

Basically, the upshot of this is: ‘don’t panic’ if you own one of the cars listed below. Here's why.

The problem? There’s a potentially defective brake light switch in these cars. (Note that ‘potentially defective’ is quite different to ‘defective’ – a distinction many recall-related stories fail to grasp in their quest for sensationalism.)

In this case, if the switch becomes faulty, the brake lights still work; they just take up to two seconds to illuminate fully. The fault, which according to Hyundai spokesperson Guido Schenken so far affects around “point oh-one of one per cent” of vehicles (one in 10,000 – about 23 vehicles in total) could also cause the vehicle not to start, or the transmission to be locked into ‘P’ as a failsafe against driving with brake lights that aren’t working properly. It also activates a fault light on the dashboard.

A caller on radio recently put it to me that the defective switch might cause the cruise control not to disengage if the brakes were hit. It’s a reasonable presumption, logically, but Hyundai says what in fact happens is that the cruise control system simply fails to operate at all if the switch becomes defective.

If the transmission is locked into the ‘P’ position as a result of the defect there’s a temporary fix that drivers can employ to unlock it so the vehicle can be driven – the 24/7 Hyundai customer care hotline (it’s called ‘iCare’ after Hyundai’s obsession with ‘iWord’ taxonomy) has details on 1800 186 306.

According to Hyundai, the cars that are potentially affected are:

Hyundai Getz (August 2002 to August 2011)

  • Hyundai i30 (September 2007 to May 2012)
  • Hyundai Santa Fe (May 2006 to August 2012)
  • Hyundai Tucson (June 2004 to February 2010)
  • Hyundai ix35 (March 2010 to 2013)
  • Hyundi Elantra (October 2006 to June 2011)
  • Hyundai iLoad and iMax (February 2008 to 2013)
  • Owners will be advised to bring the cars in to the dealership.

What's in a Name? 

The issue of whether or not a potential fault qualifies as a recall hinges on the matter of safety. There are hundreds of recalls on the ACCC’s product safety recalls website – and it would be fair to say the car companies affected hate them all. They diminish the brand's reputation. Car companies, even here, employ spin to minimize the potential consequences of the defects. For example, on the ACC's recalls website, Holden says:

“passengers seated in the driver’s side rear or centre seat may not be restrained properly”

Instead of a perhaps more literal truth:

“in a crash our potentially defective seatbelt installation could cause you to be ejected through the windscreen and killed”

This is in relation to the 4236 JG Cruzes listed on the recalls website with potentially unsafe seatbelts. Reference: http://www.recalls.gov.au/content/index.phtml/itemId/1003061

Hyundai plays this game too (they all do): 

"If the defect occurs, it may pose a laceration hazard to occupants of the vehicle"

Reference: http://www.recalls.gov.au/content/index.phtml/itemId/1045089 

A more literal truth is perhaps that if the sunroof in your shiny new Hyundai Veloster is to shatter as a result of the potential defect in its assembly, ith could do a great job of slicing you up. At 110km/h.

In relation to fire hazards, car companies say things like this:

“In affected vehicles, the fuel feed hose could potentially leak diesel fuel, resulting in a remote possibility of fire or a hazard to other road users.”

Reference: http://www.recalls.gov.au/content/index.phtml/itemId/1008845

That’s Holden again, in relation to one of the recalls covering several tens of thousands of Cruzes (one of the most potential safety-defect-riddled vehicles sold in Australia today) affected by fire risk recalls. What they really mean is: if you don’t get the fuel system fixed, you or your family might die screaming in agony as a result of your vehicle burning to the ground.

Vehicle fires are dramatic. When a Cruze burns to the ground in traffic, it looks like this (click the 'play icon in the centre of the video, which you can barely see on top of the flames):

Among the other more recent recalls:

Cars are complex machines, comprising 10,000-odd parts and more than one million lines of computer code across 60 or more networked ECUs. They can't actually be assembled with perfection (despite what the brochure implies). In the context of all of this, calling a potentially defective brake light switch (where the brake lights still work) a safety recall does seem a bit heavy handed, don’t you think?