When Car Companies Screw Up, What Do They Do About It?
Car companies have two choices when they discover something wrong with an automotive product they have shipped. Their choice of reaction depends on many factors such as overall safety concerns, inconvienence to auto owner and (more often than not) cost of repairs or replacement.

Recalls are usually conducted by an automotive manufacturer if the following criteria are met:
  • There is a significant risk of major mechanical failure. Often this risk must be accompanied by an equal or greater risk of bodily injury to the driver/passengers of the vehicle.
  • The defect has been discovered early on in the life of the vehicle.
  • The defect will become an issue early on in the vehicle's lifetime (IE usually within about one-half of the time of the standard warranty)
  • The defect is cosmetic and rather noticeable.
  • The cost of the repairs and/or time to repair is minimal in relation to the severity of the defect.
Recalls involve (obviously) a "recall" of the vehicle, usually into the dealership of the automotive company, or a licensed mechanic approved by the company. Often notices are mailed to the car owners, and notices are put in the newspaper and other media for any major defects involved in a recall. Very rarely are any costs of a recall passed along to the owner of the vehicle.

Service Bulletins are bulletins that are usually not released to the general public, but instead are "posted" for an automotive company's dealerships and service centres. These bulletins advise the dealerships about potential problems that may arise over and over again in a certain model of car. Reasons service bulletins are posted are as follows:

  • While there is a risk of mechanical failure in the vehicle or part, it does not represent a great risk to the driver/passengers or the overall function of the vehicle.
  • The mechanical defect will most likey not become an issue for the owner until late into their ownership of the vehicle, usually after their warranty expires but before the usual life of a part or component of a vehicle. For example, if a head gasket has a normal life of 10 years, and it has found to become defective after 5 years, a service bulletin may be issued.
  • The defect is unlikely to occur in the majority of vehicles, but is still possible and may be major problem nonetheless.
Service bulletins, while not released specifically to vehicle owners, are readily available at your dealership and other public sources. Many websites exist that list service bulletins for a chosen vehicle (as well as recalls and other information) and may even list class action lawsuits that may have come about due to a problem with a vehicle, but more on that later.

Doing nothing is also a valid choice that many automobile companies may exercise. Of course, internal documentation may reveal known defects, so often these minor problems are still released in the form of service bulletins to save any future troubles with "paperwork". For purposes of this writeup, we'll overlook the possibilities when companies decide to take no action on defects with their vehicles or parts.

In comparison, the differences between recalls and service bulletins become very clear. The question is: how do you use either to your advantage?

With recalls, you need to keep a keen eye on your mail and the media, as per usual. Usually companies will try as hard as they can to contact you about these recalls, as they do not wish to look negligent in any way regarding your safety.

But service bulletins aren't as readily advertised. When you'll most likely want to check out any service bulletins is when something goes wrong with your vehicle. For example, we owned a 1998 Dodge Stratus, and in 2002 we had problems with the head gasket (an oil leak). After coming up with a service bulletin from the internet, we convinced Chrysler Canada to give us a 50-50 deal (we pay 50 percent of cost for repairs, they pay 50 percent) even though we were outside of our service warranty. This is the most likely use for service bulletins.

When companies list a few too many service bulletins, or do not follow up on their own recommendations, you may decide to launch a class action lawsuit on behalf of owners of your vehicle against the automotive company. Several of these lawsuits have been successful in either having the company pay for part or all of the necessary repairs, or even turn a service bulletin into a recall if necessary for safety reasons.

So next time you have a problem with your vehicle (or are purchasing a used vehicle and want to know what to expect!) check for recalls and service bulletins for your vehicle or purchased parts.

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