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In Wake of Toyota, Carmakers Step Up Voluntary Recalls

Most vehicle recalls used to happen only after long, drawn-out government inquiries had identified safety defects and required the car companies to fix them.

Car dealership
Car dealership

But in the wake of Toyota’s extensive recalls, automakers are initiating more themselves rather than waiting for government regulators to step in. The new mind-set has produced a flood of recalls, some occurring in reaction to just a few complaints from car owners, or maybe only one.

The numbers underscore the sudden shift. Two times as many cars and trucks have been recalled in the last 12 months than have been sold, although many of the recalled cars were from previous years. More than 22.4 million recall notices were sent to consumers in that period, including 10 million from Toyota and 428 from the luxury sports car-maker Lamborghini. By comparison, the industry has sold a little more than 11 million new cars and trucks in that time.

Industry analysts say that automakers in general are less insistent on disputing the need for a recall, and more aware of the harmful publicity that results from not addressing a safety problem quickly.

“Now they’re erring on the side of doing a recall, versus not doing a recall,” said Clarence Ditlow, the executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group. “All the manufacturers want to clean up their act and get defects and recalls behind them so the public doesn’t question the safety of their vehicles.”

Federal regulators have also stepped up their oversight efforts since Toyota’s sudden-acceleration recalls. Over all, the auto industry is on pace to recall more vehicles in 2010 than in any year since 2004, when a record 30.8 million vehicles were found to have defects.

“A higher proportion of recent recalls have been initiated voluntarily by automakers,” Olivia Alair, a Transportation Department spokeswoman, said.

The 2010 numbers do not include most of the vehicles covered by Toyota’s two big recalls, because the first began in late 2009. In addition, Ford expanded the largest recall in its history late last year, adding 4.5 million vehicles to an already long list of older models with faulty cruise-control deactivation switches.

From November through January, Toyota recalled more than eight million vehicles worldwide — six million of which are in the United States and included in the government data — in connection with reports of sudden acceleration. In some cases, Toyota said floor mats could interfere with the accelerator pedal, while in others the pedal itself was found to be defective. Some vehicles are covered by both recalls, and as a result are counted twice.

In April, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fined Toyota an unprecedented $16.4 million, the maximum allowed by law, for waiting too long to initiate a recall for the flawed pedals.

Though recalls inevitably create negative attention, especially after Toyota’s problems put a brighter spotlight on far more minor recalls, many of the companies have decided it is better to take action than to wait. When recalls are handled promptly and properly, consumers are generally more willing to forgive and forget, said David Champion, the director of auto testing for Consumer Reports.

“Many of the manufacturers don’t want to be caught in the situation that Toyota was, where they look like they’re covering it up,” Mr. Champion said.

“At one time, manufacturers considered recalls as sort of the kiss of death, but now there’s many more,” he said. “The average consumer realizes that this is a safety item and they’re fixing it for free, so on the whole they’re not particularly bothered by it, as long as it’s not one now, one three months later, and then another one.”

Toyota rarely has gone more than a few weeks this year without announcing a new recall. Since Feb. 1, it has started 12 additional recall campaigns covering 1.4 million vehicles for problems other than sudden acceleration.

Two Toyota distributors recalled more than 300,000 vehicles that had been sold without load-capacity labels, and regulators are investigating whether 1.2 million Toyotas should be recalled in response to complaints about stalling.

Toyota quickly recalled and temporarily stopped selling one model, the Lexus GX 460 sport utility vehicle, in April after Consumer Reports discovered a high risk for rollover crashes and declared the vehicle a safety risk. It recalled another Lexus S.U.V., the LX 470, in July after receiving a single report of steering-shaft disengagement, Brian Lyons, a company spokesman, said.

General Motors, which paid a $1 million fine in 2004, when regulators said it was too slow to recall 600,000 vehicles with defective windshield wipers, has recalled three million vehicles this year. Two of its 11 recall campaigns covered more than a million vehicles each.

A G.M. spokesman, Alan Adler, said the 2004 fine “certainly was a catalyst to put a much stronger emphasis on working well with N.H.T.S.A. on issues that were coming up.”

He added: “If you handle a recall properly with a customer, the chances are greater that you gain customer loyalty than lose it. You will have things that go wrong, and some of those will be safety issues. The important thing is how you take care of it.”

Safety regulators became most demanding of automakers in the months after Toyota’s big recalls. The number of recall campaigns covering more than 500 vehicles, cars or light trucks in the United States doubled in February through April from about seven a month in the previous year.

In March, G.M. agreed to recall nearly 1.1 million small cars, the Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5, because the power steering could fail, although the company argued that did not make the cars unsafe to drive. In July, it addressed a nearly identical issue with the Chevrolet Malibu without a recall, by simply extending the warranty so that owners could get free repairs, but it did not have to pay to repair all one million that could be affected.

The financial impact of the surge in recalls is significant. Toyota executives in Japan estimated in February that lost sales and repairs under the sudden-acceleration recalls would cost $2 billion.

Increased costs also are a result of higher customer responses. Toyota said 72 percent of recalled vehicles are brought in for repair within a year and a half of a notice. The pedal recall, though, has drawn more than 80 percent of car owners affected since it was issued in January.

At South Shore Honda in Valley Stream, N.Y., the service manager, Sam Nicoleau Jr., said recall repairs now account for at least 30 percent of the warranty work the dealership performs, double what it was a few years ago. Honda has issued 10 recalls this year on 1.6 million vehicles, and Mr. Nicoleau said publicity about them means the dealership is often inundated with calls from customers even before he gets the information from Honda.

Before Toyota’s big recalls, many customers told him they were too busy to bring their vehicle in for recall work. “But now they get it done,” he said. “Now they understand what could possibly happen to you if you don’t get it done.”