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Quality Creates...Perspective

Why Safety Compliance Must Be A Quality Priority For Carmakers

David Bolton
by David Bolton on Wed, Aug 14, 2019

Quality Management System

The auto industry is always touting the continuous improvement in the driving experience, but missing parts can be a problem.

Car dealerships and automakers continually remind us that there is almost nothing better than buying a new vehicle. Every year, millions of people are happy to agree with this auto industry-driven mantra and buy into this aspirational vision of what brings value to their lives -- and these investments naturally keep the wheels of the automotive sector turning.

In what seems like a never-ending stream of commercials, the auto industry will spend a significant amount of time, money and rock music showcasing not only the latest models but also upgrades in quality and driving experience.

In much the same way as certain smartphone manufacturers tinker with a design and claim that this year’s version is a “must-have,” carmakers are acutely aware that customers may not actually need a new car. Millions of vehicles are sold every day, so the art of persuasion has to be watertight on every level.

The caveat is that encouraging a person to buy a new car is only one part of the process. A customer also needs to know that the investment is not only warranted but also that the vehicle has gone through a rigorous testing process and quality audit. And it is the latter process that some car companies are struggling to get into a higher gear.

Missing parts are not a minor issue

Recalling a vehicle days after shipping to dealers and customers is not a good look for any auto manufacturer. Even more so, when that product recall is directly related to a safety compliance issue that should have been identified and dealt with by a quality management system before a single vehicle left the assembly line.

USA Today reported that Ford Motor Company is recalling almost 14,000 SUVs due to a potentially missing manual park release cover on its 2020 Ford Explorer and Lincoln Aviator models. The company has admitted that the lack of the park release cover is not a minor issue, citing Federal Motor Vehicle Standards that require the cover to be in place before shipping and only removable with a specific tool. In addition, the vehicles are likely to be in factory mode, an assembly-line requirement that also goes against federal standards, the company said.

“If the cover is not installed, the manual park release lever may be inadvertently activated, which could result in unintended vehicle movement if the electronic park brake is not applied, increasing the risk of crash,” Ford said, in a press release. “Also, the instrument cluster of affected vehicles may be in factory mode, which disables warning alerts and chimes, and does not display the PRNDL gear positions and which gear is selected.”

Recalls are a frequent pain point

Vehicle recalls due to safety compliance concerns are nothing new in the automobile industry.

According to a recent report[PDF] by recall-and-return services provider Stericycle, around 24 million units in the U.S. alone were subject to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recalls in the first quarter of 2019. A full 91.7 percent of unit recalls – deemed to be autos, child seats, equipment and tires - related to the performance and safety features of the vehicle itself.

Airbags – still a major source of quality issues, despite the lessons learned from the widespread Takata recall – make up 73.6 percent of recalled units, but there have been several recent high-profile vehicle recalls that relate to roll-away risk and transmission issues.

Porsche, for instance, recently recalled nearly 100,000 cars and SUVs due to a possible cable failure in the transmission system, while Kia has taken over 11,000 2019 models of its Optima sedan off the road because the software in the forward collision warning system could prevent the automatic braking system from engaging. Both automakers have said that they are not aware of any crashes or injuries that can traced to this issue, but the consensus in the auto industry is always to err on the side of caution.

Ford’s recall is more troubling as it appears that the company from its press release that the company has no idea how many vehicles have been shipped with the manual park release cover and which need to have it installed by a third party. This lack of actionable data then raises additional questions about how effective the corrective action will be if the fix is not undertaken by a Ford-qualified mechanic.

The good news is that the majority of the vehicles are still in dealer inventory and the company has said that, if necessary, the issue will be fixed by dealers before they are sold or delivered to customers. Dealers will also make sure that the instrument cluster is out of factory mode and clear any affected diagnostic codes.

Safety compliance is a quality concern

A single car can have thousands of parts – Toyota, for example, estimates that every one of its vehicles has around 30,000 individual parts – but carmakers have long used QMS to ensure that every vehicle that comes off the line is ready to hit the road. Of course, an individual part failure is something that is often not flagged until the vehicle is actually being used by its owner, but shipping to dealers with a missing part is a definite quality misstep.

In an interview with USA Today, a Ford spokesperson stressed that it was a safety compliance recall and that the vehicles were safe to drive. All of the affected vehicles were assembled at the company’s Chicago plant between March 27 and July 2019, and Ford said it was only aware of one vehicle being damaged to date.

“A recall is issued when a manufacturer or NHTSA determines that a vehicle, equipment, car seat, or tire creates an unreasonable safety risk or fails to meet minimum safety standards,” the NHTSA website states. “Most decisions to conduct a recall and remedy a safety defect are made voluntarily by manufacturers prior to any involvement by NHTSA. Manufacturers are required to fix the problem by repairing it, replacing it, offering a refund, or in rare cases repurchasing the vehicle.”

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