Beyond tires, recalls are rampant

Carmakers' desire to speed up production has in part led to more recalls. Yet customer satisfaction is rising.

Ever since computer chips burst onto the scene two decades ago, industry after industry has sought to follow the high-tech model: "Better, faster, cheaper."

From copy machines to cars, it seemed like every consumer's dream come true: better products delivered faster for less money. Recently, though, consumers have begun to discover the downside of speed.

Consider automobiles. While the recall of faulty Bridgestone/Firestone tires has captured public attention, many carmakers are increasingly making recalls of their own.

Last year, nearly 10 percent of cars on the road were recalled, up from just 4 percent in 1990. Some observers suggest that Detroit's lawyers are just becoming more cautious. But others attribute the trend at least partly to faster rollout of new models.

While the recalls may not indicate a rise in serious safety problems - indeed, customer satisfaction continues to rise - the drive to get more-complex vehicles out quickly has caused more glitches as drivers become field testers for new-model cars. At many companies, "Job No. 1 is putting out a couple hundred thousand units a year to generate the revenue to create the next generation, more-reliable product," says Tom Warren of Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina. "[Companies] are not going to overinvest and make it twice as reliable as the competitor's product if it takes an extra six months."

So far, though, the problems have not been large enough to seriously upset consumers, who say they are increasingly content with the cars they buy.

"Consumers are not telling us that the vehicles they are getting are worse; they're telling us just the opposite," says George Owens, manager of product research for J.D. Power and Associates, a consumer research firm in Agoura Hills, Calif.

And to some degree, these consumer attitudes mirror what experts say.

"The quality of cars today is so infinitely better than the early '90s," says Gordon Wangers, managing partner of Automotive Marketing Consultants Inc., a Vista, Calif., company that evaluates cars.

A decade ago, he says, he could have rattled off a list of cars that consumers should stay away from. "Today, it is literally difficult for me to come up with a list of 'do not buys.' It's sort of a golden age for the consumer."

That said, the rise in recalls hints at some deeper problems, experts say. While some point simply to skittish legal departments, others note the high levels of overtime auto workers are putting in, suggesting that tired employees are more likely to make mistakes. Others say the growing complexity of new cars makes it hard for automakers to get it right the first time.

"Vehicles are a whole lot more sophisticated today," says David Cole, director of the Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Although the individual components are more reliable than in the past, there are so many more of them that the likelihood that something will fail goes up.

Shortening the product cycle creates other worries. For one, it makes it difficult for quality-control engineers to do all the testing they'd like, especially for wear and tear. "It's very difficult to simulate time," Mr. Cole says.

Moreover, the crunch to get cutting-edge technology to market as soon as possible can lead to cutting corners.

"In the software industry, there's an awful lot of temptation these days to put products out with lots of known bugs, because you know six months from now that there's going to be a new product out there that solves at least some of the bugs," says Mr. Warren of Research Triangle Institute. "As long as there are no safety issues involved, you can take care of it through service."

Detroit may not have taken things quite that far. Observers point to a number of factors - including the growth of niche vehicles and new models - that have slowed the drive for quality. Yet Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington has advice for consumers: "Don't buy any new vehicle the first year of production."

The Dodge Neon, for example, had several problems when it first came out that were subsequently fixed, Mr. Ditlow says. The Ford Aerostar endured several recalls in its first year as the manufacturer worked to get its product right.

In dealing with these glitches, automakers have figured out how to neutralize bad publicity, turning recalls into a virtue.

"In these competitive times, manufacturers have been eager to share [troubling data] with consumers ... so they can highlight that they're going to be up front with their consumers," says Mr. Owens of J.D. Power.

Improved data systems have also made it easier for firms to track down problems. Auto-related companies now catch problems they wouldn't have been aware of 10 years ago, says Cole.

In the current scandal over the Firestone tires that come on Explorers, Ford has repeatedly claimed it took action once it knew of the problem.

Firestone, which acted more slowly, has endured more criticism. Tuesday, congressional investigators announced they have found new evidence the tiremaker knew about tread-separation problems as early as 1996, when eight of 18 tires taken off the production line failed speed tests. The same day, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it has received 800 more complaints about the recalled Firestone tires.

It's an atmosphere that is sure to chasten the auto industry. "Whenever there's a lot of public attention about an unsafe vehicle - and clearly this is one where both manufacturers share the blame - the manufacturers get concerned about the public perception," says Ditlow. "They mind their p's and q's a little more."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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