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Rash of auto recalls raises questions about safety, electric cars


Vehicles are parked outside the Tesla plant, in Fremont, Calif., on May 12, 2020. California sued Tesla Inc. on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022, over allegations of discrimination and harassment of Black employees at its San Francisco Bay area factory. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

A recent flurry of automobile recalls is raising new safety concerns, including questions about the reliability of Tesla’s electric vehicles.


Hundreds of thousands of Tesla, Hyundai, Kia, Porsche and Audi vehicles have been recalled this week. But Tesla, the nation’s largest maker of electric cars and SUVs, is drawing the most attention from safety watchdogs and government regulators after allegedly dodging concerns for years.


“If a company is pushing safety limits, then the government should fine it,” said William Wallace, manager of safety policy for the nonprofit safety watchdog Consumer Reports. “But Tesla finally seems to be taking responsibility for issues we have known about for a while.”


Tesla said Thursday it was recalling 579,000 of its 2020-2022 Model X, S and Y cars in the U.S. after learning that sounds from their “Boombox” function can override the pedestrian warnings that federal law requires for electric cars. The Texas-based electric car company cited a December 2020 software update for the recall, which also includes some 2017-2022 Model 3 vehicles.


That marks the fourth recall Tesla has announced in the past two weeks, two of them software-related and the other two stemming from violations of federal motor safety standards.


Tesla has issued 15 recalls for hundreds of thousands of cars from all of its models since January 2021 — ranging from defective seat belt chimes to “Full Self-Driving” software that allowed vehicles to roll through stop signs without halting — according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records.


An NHTSA spokesperson told The Washington Times in an emailed statement that government regulators initiated conversations with Tesla in response to customer complaints.


“After receiving complaints from consumers about defrosters not clearing windshields in select Tesla vehicles, NHTSA immediately began discussions with Tesla about the issue,” the spokesperson said. “Tesla launched a recall after it determined that a software issue in some new vehicles caused heat pump malfunctions preventing proper operation of required windshield defrosting and defogging systems, making the affected vehicles noncompliant with federal motor vehicle safety standards.”


Tesla, which reportedly has disbanded its media relations department, did not respond to a request for comment. The company produced 930,422 vehicles in 2021 and is testing its assisted-driving software in 60,000 vehicles, according to a quarterly earnings report released last week.


Business consultant Hans Dau, CEO of the Mitchell Madison Group, said the spike in recalls could stem from manufacturers such as Tesla cutting corners during the supply chain crisis.


“Vehicle recalls may be related to automakers scrambling to scale production rapidly and potentially substituting parts based on availability in the global supply chain,” Mr. Dau said. “Tesla seems to be in a particularly tough spot.”


Mr. Dau pointed to a report last month from the TUV association — the agency that performs all government-required car inspections in Germany — that included electric cars for the first time. It found that Tesla Model S, BMW i3, Renault Zoe and Smart For Two Electric Drive (now EQ ForTwo) commonly had problems with their brakes, lights, wishbones and axle suspensions.


“In Germany, where all vehicles over three years must be inspected by certified TUV association inspectors according to government standards, Tesla’s Model S fared particularly poorly, ranking 126 out of 128 vehicles with an average defect rate of 11.7% compared to 4.7% for BMW’s i3 and around 2% for the top five non-electric vehicles,” Mr. Dau said.


That means that while the other three electric vehicles had average test results, more than 10% of Tesla’s electric cars failed their first inspections in Germany, the testing agency found.


Teslas also have been recalled in Europe because of problems with seats, seat belts, front suspension control, braking issues and touch screens.


But Tesla is not the only automaker struggling with recent recalls. NHTSA reports 66 U.S. automobile recalls this year — including four from Kia/Hyundai and two from Porsche/Audi.


Korean manufacturers Hyundai and Kia announced Tuesday that they were recalling 485,000 popular vehicles because their engines could catch fire even when turned off. Also on Tuesday, Volkswagen USA issued a second recall for 31,058 Audis and 1,242 Porsches struggling with rear-axle alignment problems that the company had tried to correct in a first recall last year.


Volkswagen USA did not respond to a request for comment.


Hyundai, which owns a large share of Kia, said it has recommended that owners park their vehicles “outside and away from structures” so they do not catch fire while recall notices are mailed.


“When a safety-related defect is identified, we act swiftly and efficiently to recall the vehicle and fix the problem at no cost to affected customers,” Hyundai spokesman Michael Stewart said.


He added that Hyundai was “not aware of any crashes or injuries” related to the fire problem that stems from the vehicles’ anti-lock braking system.


Mr. Wallace, the Consumer Reports safety specialist, said half of this year’s recalls stem from “typical things” like brake lights on older models and the other half from long-standing consumer complaints — like the Kia/Hyundai fires and Tesla issues — that haven’t been addressed before.


“It’s unclear to me how much the recent recalls are connected to supply chain challenges or to the companies’ unique circumstances,” Mr. Wallace said. “We’re hearing from auto companies that they’ve had to make hard choices sometimes and it affects what systems they put in their vehicles.”


General Motors, the nation’s largest automobile manufacturer, has issued one recall this year, for a rear-wheel-drive shaft assembly failure affecting 1,789 GMC and Chevrolet SUVs from 2021.


While NHTSA reported that GM recalled 8 million vehicles last year, a spokesman told the Times that 6 million of them related to Takata passenger airbags in certain 2007-2014 Chevrolet and GMC full-size trucks and SUVs — a battle the company lost after several years of appeals.


Without those 6 million recalls, he said, the company has consistently recalled about 2 million vehicles a year for the past three to four years.


“In 2021, GM had several safety recalls,” said Daniel Flores, GM’s manager of corporate news relations. “Most were small in nature in terms of vehicle volume.”


GM implemented a new safety reporting system and field investigation team following a 2014 ignition switch recall, he added.


Joe Young, director of media relations for the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said the recent flurry of recalls should give consumers pause.


“We encourage consumers to take safety recalls seriously and check the VIN on used cars for open recalls,” Mr. Young said. “A lot of things should inform their buying decisions, including safety inspections.”


As for Tesla, economist Peter Earle, a research fellow at the libertarian American Institute for Economic Research in Massachusetts, said the personality of CEO Elon Musk may be adding to its challenges.


“These kinds of issues are not irregular or out of character for a new, rapidly growing firm — especially one attempting to innovate in as hidebound and regulated industry as autos are,” Mr. Earle said. “But the high profile and outspoken nature of Tesla’s founder, Elon Musk, ensures that these typical errors and growing pains will be imbued with unnecessary political overtones.”


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