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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It is by far the largest selling carmaker in India, but its success is led largely by age old cars like Alto, Wagon R and even Swift. With parent Suzuki in a state of disarray and more dependent on Maruti than ever before and a product pipeline that is drying up and consists mostly of refreshes, Maruti Suzuki’s indefatigable halo in India is diminishing. What is even more disturbing is its complacency amply reflected in the deadlock between management and workers at its newest Manesar factory. Read more

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