The recall of two cars exclusively made in India–Ford EcoSport and Renault Duster–in overseas markets has undermined Prime Mnister Narendra Modi’s pitch to global corporates to tap India’s prowess as a manufacturing hub.

On Tuesday, Ford recalled over 20,000 units of the EcoSport, by far its bestselling model in India, to fix the wiring harness related to correct deployment of curtain airbags and to mitigate concerns of fuel and vapour line corrosion. The recall in India came within a month of a similar exercise by Ford in Australia that covered around 3,000 cars. The cars were made at Ford’s Chennai factory in India and shipped to Australia.

Ford EcoSport

In a similar instance, French car maker Renault recalled some of its own best selling compact SUV Duster in UK due to a problem with the quality of paint that resulted in premature corrosion on the door sills, bonnet and other areas. These cars were also made in Renault-Nissan’s joint factory in Chennai and the recall almost coincided with the company’s decision to shift production of Duster for the UK market from India to Romania.

Renault Duster

Renault denied there was any truth in suggestions that the recall and the shift in production was related but there seems to be more than meets the eye. Unlike Ford, for example, the French carmaker remains reluctant to carry out recalls in India when it is near certain that the same paint is used in the Dusters on the road in India. In addition, there are already cases of rusting and corrosion in some of the Dusters on the road here.

Recalling a car is no longer a stigma with the consumers and unless when the cause is really severe like in the case of Takata airbags, it does not undermine a product’s prospects any more. The Indian market has evolved enough to understand that a car is after all a machine, a complex one at that, and just like a TV, refrigerator or air conditioner, it may fail at times. A recall only enhances the trust of a consumer in a particular brand.

Even then, the above instances alongwith the dramatic increase in the number of recalls in India in the last few years does present a question whether the quality of the cars made in India has gone down.

There are two aspects to it. One, that manufacturers flush with the realisation that recalls is not a bad word anymore and indeed more pro-active and uninhibited in admitting to mistakes. I would tend to believe that in general but the reluctance of Renaut to recall the Duster in India proves, it is not always the case.

Two that the rapid expansion of production facilities in India has resulted in corners being cut either at the manufacturer’s end or with the component supplier’s. It is always easy to monitor smaller volumes of cars being produced at a factory and when numbers go up, chances of mistakes also go up proportionately.

Perhaps the answer lies in between these two aspects. Bottomline…there is a long way to go in motown before Modi’s vision of making zero defect products in India is realised.

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In the wake of the unfortunate events of Friday when a 25 year old executive was raped by a Uber cab driver, a lot has been done, said and written. The bumbling law enforcement agencies (read Police) stumbled at not being able to prevent the crime in the first place but then acted promptly to first seize the vehicle a few kilometers away from the capital and then the alleged perpetrator of the crime itself in a few more hours.

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The last time I wrote about the need to regulate the plying of electronic rickshaws in Delhi, the issue had not taken centre stage in the way it is now. The death of a 2 year old in East Delhi last week along with Delhi Traffic Police’s claim that e-rickshaws have led to 29 accidents and at least 2 more deaths in the past, has made it more serious and urgent. Read more

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When it comes to providing safety features in cars, and we are primarily talking of small cars here, it is a pure case of passing the buck. The manufacturers say the consumers dont want it. The consumers crib that the manufacturers dont provide it or even when they do, the cost is exorbitant. And the government isn’t able to make up its mind on what to do. Read more

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We all know driving in Delhi is one of the more dangerous activities one can do. In 2013, 1530 people lost their lives due to fatal accidents in the national capital, the most in any city in the country by some distance. Read more

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Blame it on the burden of expectations or our rockstar Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s own exhortations to rise above petty politics but the decision to allow e-rickshaws in Delhi is proof enough that the NDA 2.0 rule has started on the wrong foot. Read more

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Would rural development minister Gopinath Munde be still with us if he had strapped on his seat belt on Tuesday morning?

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In between all the madness surrounding the elections, news reports of two separate cars catching fire in Delhi grabbed headlines in the last few days.

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In 2013-14, the most ubiquitous car on Indian roads–Maruti Alto–completed a full decade of dominance in the market. It first reached the pole position in 2004-05 when it ended the more than two decade rule of its predecessor Maruti 800. It is not a mere coincidence that as it celebrates 10 years of leadership in the year that also marks the end of the road for the M800. Read more

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Globally, vehicle recalls are a part and parcel of automotive business. Every responsible manufacturer does so for reasons as grave as potential brake failures or airbag malfunctions to seemingly trivial stuff like a defect in the power window switch.

An estimated over 40 million vehicles have been recalled worldwide in the last 10 years (see table). Most of these are in developed countries like US, Canada, Mexico and Europe where there are stringent checks and balances on non reportage of defects in a vehicle.

In the last 5 years for example, recalls have become a major flashpoint in the US. In 2009, Toyota Motor Corp, which had just become the largest car maker in the world, faced a Congressional probe for delayed response to problems with brakes and floor mats in vehicles that could cause the accelerator to become unstuck. It subsequently recalled 10 million vehicles in what remains the largest such exercise till date.

Toyota Innova

In a mirror image of the Toyota conundrum, General Motors is facing much flak from US for delayed response to an ignition problem on its Chevrolet, Pontiac and Saturn vehicles that could prevent the airbags from getting deployed. The company apparently knew about the problem back in 2007 but dilly-dallied on its response. At least 30 accidents and 13 fatalities have been reported due to this in the last 10 years. GM now faces embarrassment and a potential million dollar penalty. A speedy response could have saved some lives.

What these instances prove, more than anything else, is that for all the technological prowess car companies harness, mistakes happen. From a Porsche in Germany to a Proton in Malaysia or Geely in China, everybody has to recall cars at some point of time or the other. No manufacturer can claim to make zero defect, perfect cars. And there is no shame in recalling a bad apple. It only shows you are responsible.

Nissan Sunny

But for long, recall was considered a bad word in India. Till 2010, there are very few instances of manufacturers voluntarily recalling their cars here. The absence of mandatory recall laws meant there was no compulsion either. It created a vicious cycle. If some company went out of their way to recall a car out of transparency, it was seen as a sign of poor quality, bad practices and faced the ire of consumers. It made manufacturers cagey about recalling cars.

Nobody can claim we have perfect cars in India. In terms of quality we are perhaps not even half way there as US or Europe. And not all of it can be brushed under the carpet on price. We live with fewer features and lower safety and emission standards that bring down the price of vehicles anyway. If sophisticated factories in Germany or Detroit cannot make defect free vehicles, there is no reason to believe a factory in India can do the same. Sounds condescending, but so be it.

Chevrolet Tavera

In the past, manufacturers would also identify defects and some would even replace the parts quietly when the cars came to the service stations for periodic maintenance. It served their purpose (a clear conscience perhaps) and to some extent that of consumers as well. But not all cars go to authorised service stations in India and so that discreet way was not foolproof. The need for a mandatory recall provision has been felt for long. And for long, it never materialised.

Thankfully though, there has been a marked change in stance in the last 4 years. Largely due to the deluge of recalls in the US and the explosion of media in India, manufacturers have become more confident about recalling cars here. The consumers today are more aware about recalls happening in other parts of the world and more willing to accept it as a goodwill gesture when it happens in India.

Honda City

A decade ago, the recall of 972 units of the Ford EcoSport barely a week after its launch would have meant hara-kiri. Today, there has been absolutely no impact as consumers are emboldened by the fact that they are taking home a safe vehicle and that the manufacturer would still be working to find out if there are any belated defects even after it has exchanged hands.

Since 2010, almost 800,000 cars have been recalled in India. Last year was a watershed year of sorts with at least 11 instances of recalls. A lot of ground then, has been made. And as the Ford EcoSport’s example clearly suggests–recall isn’t a bad word anymore.

Yet a lot more ground still needs to be made. Our cars may not be as sophisticated as the ones in US and Europe and as consumers we may not be as paranoid as in US either, but there are still a lot of issues that need attention. Home grown car makers like Mahindra and Tata are still averse to calling their service campaigns as recalls. Famously, Tata never called its exercise to retrofit more safety elements on the Nano as a recall even when prima facie, it was one. Similarly, Mahindra vehicles are notorious for inconsistent braking. Yet, there has been only one instance when it has actually offered to replace them carte blanche.

Even on Wednesday, when Toyota recalled 6.58 million vehicles globally, its Indian subsidiary shied away from using the R word. And it happened a day after Maruti remained tight lipped about a problem in its compact sedan Dzire that merits a recall.

After four years of progression, this new found fear of the R word is not only regressive but also perplexing. I just hope it is not the start of anything more sinister.

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