What's behind all the car recalls?

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This week got off to a roaring start in the automotive recall department, with Chrysler announcing on Monday that it's recalling 643,000 vehicles for ignition switch problems. On the same day, Nissan recalled 226,000 Pathfinder and Maxima models for faulty air-bag inflators. They’re by no means alone. Just last week, in a now-familiar routine, other recalls included:

• 573,000 BMWs

• 554,000 Cadillacs

• 392,000 Chevrolet Silverados and GMC Sierras

• 18,000 Mazda 6 and RX-8 models

• 5,650 Hyundai Sonatas

• 2,000 VW Golf and GTI vehicles

• And an unknown number of Mitsubishi Lancers.

Of course, they’re all dwarfed by General Motor’s recent ignition-switch problem that, as of the latest count, now totals 6.7 million vehicles. (To get a look at the miniscule part at the heart of GM’s headaches, see the video we shot at http://machinedesign.com/blog/whats-inside-gms-recalled-ignition-switch.)  When you recall more vehicles in a year than you manufacture, it’s not good for business. GM has set aside $400 million for a victims’ compensation fund and estimates its current recalls will cost nearly $2.4 billion.

You’d think these are problems car companies would prefer to avoid. So why the surge in recalls among all automakers?

Some pundits claim it’s due to a corporate good conscious. They say the carmakers want to be perceived in the eye of consumers as doing the right thing, so they are erring on the side of caution and issuing recalls even for minor problems unrelated to safety. That’s tough to swallow, particularly in light of an apparent 10-year cover-up at GM. More likely, automakers want to avoid the fines and lawsuits.

But to get to the heart of the issue, a better explanation comes from a recent report by the Society of Automotive Analysts.

It says one problem is that vehicles are more complicated than ever. According to Toyota, the average car has about 30,000 parts if you count every little screw and connector. That’s a lot of things that can go wrong. Some of this complexity is due to regulatory mandates involving safety and fuel efficiency. And some is due to all the comfort and convenience features that consumers seem to love.

Another reason, according to the SAA report, is that to save costs, automakers are sharing as many parts as possible across multiple lines. Designing and testing components is time-consuming and expensive, so they want to use them in as many places as possible — not customize them for every model. But when something goes wrong, it affects a lot of vehicles.

And finally, says SAA, there’s the supply chain. Automakers have outsourced the production of countless parts and systems to subcontractors, who in turn have their own sets of vendors and suppliers. There’s less oversight from the top, though everyone along the chain is constantly getting squeezed to cut costs.

Given all that, it’s a minor miracle that today’s cars are nonetheless marvels of design and manufacturing engineering. Considering the complexity of each vehicle and the volumes produced, defects are a pretty small percentage of the total lot, and overall quality is arguably the best it’s ever been.

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What's Stress and Strain?

Ken has worked as a design engineer for a major fluid-power and motion-control manufacturer

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