Sunday, March 23, 2014

Auto Erratic

This is a tale of unrequited love, of affection rejected, of suitors seduced, then abandoned.

It is the story of the American public’s love affair with the automobile. And how the industry rewards that love and loyalty with a callous disregard for our safety and well being.

The latest example of this twisted tale is the shocking disclosure that General Motors is recalling 1.6 million vehicles because of a faulty ignition switch.   The flaw can cause the car’s engine to switch off leaving it with no power steering, no power brakes, no airbags.

Even worse is the revelation that the defect was first discovered in 2001. But the public was never told.

Six people have died in ignition switch related accidents, according to GM, and six other deaths are linked to problem. As many as 303 deaths could have been caused by a defect, according to a report commissioned by an independent consumer watchdog group and reported in the Los Angeles Times.

Federal prosecutors and two congressional committees have opened an investigation into the matter.

At the same time, GM announced the recall of:

- 1.18 million SUVs because their side air bags, front center air bags and seat belt pretensioners might not deploy if drivers ignore an air bag warning light on their dashboard. The recall includes the Buick Enclave and GMC Acadia from the 2008-2013 model years; the Chevrolet Traverse from the 2009-2013 model years; and the Saturn Outlook from the 2008-2010 model years.

— 303,000 Chevrolet Express and GMC Savana vans from the 2009-2014 model years because the material on the instrument panel might not adequately protect unbelted passengers' heads in a crash.

— 63,900 Cadillac XTS sedans from the 2013 and 2014 model years because a plug in the brake assembly can get dislodged and short, increasing the risk of an engine compartment fire.

While the motoring public was reeling from this news, the Justice Department announced this week that Toyota will pay a $1.2 billion penalty to settle the criminal probe into its handling of unintended acceleration problems that led to recalls of 8.1 million vehicles beginning in 2009.

In the meantime, Toyota's lawyers are in settlement talks over hundreds of civil lawsuits alleging wrongful deaths or injuries, potentially adding hundreds of millions to the tab, according to published reports.

None of this should come as a complete surprise. We’ve been down this road before.
 In 2001, the infamous Ford Explorer, prone to rollovers, was equipped with Firestone tires, prone to shredding.   That combination led to an estimated 200 deaths.   Ford recalled the vehicle for a tire change.

In the 1970s, Ford brought us the Pinto, a car so badly engineered that the fuel tank was placed behind the rear axle with a fuel-filler pipe that was vulnerable to bursting in a rear-end collision.   According to published reports, an internal memo at Ford indicated that better protecting the fuel tank would cost about $11 per Pinto over its production run, but that it would be cheaper for the company to pay settlements for injuries and deaths from the resulting fires instead. Ford ended up doing both:  re-engineering the fuel tank and paying our millions in settlements for injuries and deaths.

In the 1980s, GM produced the X-Cars. One of these, the 1980 Chevrolet Citation, has been recalled nine times. Glitches on that car included everything from faulty fuel lines to a steering gear that detached from its mounts.  That almost beat the dubious record set by the Chrysler corporation which in the 1970s produced the Aspen and Volare, two models that were recalled eight times in one year.

Just this past year Hyundai recalled more than 1 million vehicles due to brake-light problem also affecting its sister company Kia. 

And Chrysler recalled 2.7 million vehicles due to a potential fuel-system problem that could cause fires in a rear-end crash.

Does this mean that the century-long love affair between motorists and manufacturers is nearing an end?   It depends on who you ask.

According to some automotive experts, GM's new car sales are unlikely to take a big hit. The company's current vehicles have received much better marks on quality than in the past. GM was named highest quality automaker by J.D. Power in 2013 for the first time in its history.

Yet, aging boomers and especially millennials are a reason why public transit demand is its strongest since 1956. New transportation systems are being built across the United States, witness light rail and subway construction in Los Angeles.

Why?  Today’s young people simply don’t drive like their predecessors did. According to one report, adults between the ages of 21 and 34 bought just 27 percent of all new vehicles sold in America in 2010, down from the peak of 38 percent in 1985. Miles driven are down and the proportion of teenagers with a license fell by 28 percent, between 1998 and 2008.

It could be a statistical aberration.   Cars are expensive, the job market remains shaky.  But what if it’s a fundamental change in thinking?

Consider:  According to a report in the Atlantic,  Zipcar is the world’s largest car-sharing company, with some 700,000 members. Zipcar owes much of its success to two facts. First, gas prices continue to rise which makes car-sharing alluring. Second, smartphones have become ubiquitous, which made car-sharing easier.

In all likelihood, cars and trucks will never disappear from our world.  But our torrid love affair with them shows signs of chilling.  And as a result, the how and why of our driving habits could change forever.

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