Millions of cars are recalled every year, often because of minor issues. But sometimes it is about life-threatening defects, such as currently defective brakes at Mercedes. In the past, safety was not always the top priority for car manufacturers.
Bad news for a car manufacturer that has long advertised itself with the slogan “The best or nothing”: According to the Federal Motor Transport Authority (KBA), the manufacturer has to recall almost a million older vehicles worldwide because of possible brake problems. Accordingly, ML, GL and R-Class cars built between 2004 and 2015 are affected, as the authority announced in its recall database. Germany probably accounts for almost 70,000 cars.
Brake boosters use a hydraulic pump or the engine’s vacuum directly to increase the braking force that the driver exerts by pressing the pedal. The problem: According to the KBA, corrosion on the brake booster in the affected Mercedes cars can, in the worst case, lead to the connection between the brake pedal and the brake system being interrupted. “As a result, the service brake fails,” reported the Federal Office.
Mercedes confirmed to the dpa news agency the information from the office that, in extreme cases, it might no longer be possible to brake the vehicle using the service brake. “This would increase the risk of accidents or injuries,” the dpa quoted a Mercedes spokesman as saying.
Such a recall is doubly unfavorable for a manufacturer like Mercedes, even if it turns out that the cause should lie with a component supplied by another company: On the one hand, recalls for car manufacturers who advertise special quality are always bad, on the other hand, safety-related recalls are Poison for the image – and increase the risk of consumer lawsuits.
Stefan Bratzel from the Center of Automotive Management (CAM) in Bergisch Gladbach cites the high pressure to change in the industry as one of the reasons for the numerous recalls in recent years. Tolerances are getting tighter. New products come onto the market faster and unfinished and only mature at the customer’s.
In addition, there are the effects of the common parts strategy and a globally networked automotive industry: faulty components are no longer just built into one model, but often in entire model families across several group brands, which increases the number of vehicles affected.
Luckily, most of the time it’s a matter of harmless defects, and it’s often better to recall too many than too few. But sometimes people’s safety is actually threatened. From the airbag disaster to burning batteries and deadly car keys: FOCUS Online undertakes a foray through the most dramatic and dangerous car manufacturer recalls.
A single supplier triggered the largest recall in automotive history. Because Takata airbags did not work properly, 50 million cars from different manufacturers worldwide had to be repaired at great expense. Metal fragments flew around when some airbags were deployed – there are said to have been a total of 11 deaths. Mercedes alone had to set aside billions in the balance sheet for corresponding recalls. Various manufacturers were affected, including BMW, Mazda, Honda and Toyota. There is nothing left to get from Takata itself: the Japanese company is bankrupt.
When a technology is still new, there are teething problems. This is particularly evident in electric cars and hybrid models. In recent years, recalls for electric cars and plug-in hybrids have mushroomed. The “over the air” updates at Tesla are famous, with which the fire hazard of some batteries was to be banned by changing the software for the power and charge control.
It could often have become a fire hazard for the drivers in the truest sense of the word. Some examples:
While today’s car manufacturers usually react quickly and sensitively to such safety problems, this was not always the case in the past. A scandal at Toyota became famous: allegedly floor mats slipping under the gas pedal meant that cars could no longer be braked. Ultimately, Toyota was even exonerated by a technical report from NASA, but in the lawsuit-loving USA, the damage to Toyota’s image was enormous. The Japanese then had to convert their cars anyway.
German manufacturers also underestimated the dynamics that such a problem can have. The first generation of the Audi TT, released in 1998, reacted to sudden acceleration when cornering at the limit with a wedged rear end, which was very difficult for normal drivers to control. Audi downplayed this for quite a while, although even within the Volkswagen group of companies – such as Porsche developers – had been warned of the problem. The number of accidents increased. At the beginning of 2000, three people died in a TT within ten days, including a VW works council and an Audi dealer.
The Ingolstadt company later decided to improve the sports car with modifications to the chassis and a rear spoiler. The most effective means, the ESP, was now standard, but was denied to first-time buyers. “An upgrade would go beyond any reasonable financial framework,” said Ingolstadt. The managers finally gave in and offered an ESP retrofit for 650 German marks. This somersault cost Audi more than 100 million euros.
Even with the cult brand Jeep, it took a long time before a deadly danger was eliminated. At the beginning of June 2013, the US traffic safety agency NHTSA warned the Chrysler Group to improve the construction of 2.7 million Jeep Cherokees – because the tanks in the rear were so unfavorable that the fuel could ignite in the event of a rear-end collision. In addition, the NHTSA had traced accidents in which the SUVs were rammed from behind back to 1996 and estimated that 51 people died because of the tank problem.
When the first complaint was made, the US automaker had still refused a recall and accused the authority of having drawn incorrect conclusions and using “non-representative comparisons”. On June 18, 2013, Chrysler finally caved in and recalled nearly 1.6 million vehicles. It is significant that the tank was placed in front of the rear axle on later Grand Cherokees. In fact, Chrysler knew exactly what the problem was.
A particularly bizarre technical error finally costs the US car giant General Motors not only a lot of money, but also a lot of reputation – and a lot of people’s lives. In 2014, GM began recalling initially 800,000 cars, and by the end of the campaign 30 million cars had to go to the workshop. The reason: In the drama known as the “Ignition Switch Scandal”, more than 100 people are said to have died due to a design error: because the restoring forces in the ignition lock were too low, the car key could jump into the “off” position while driving, and the engine died away. But then neither power steering, brake booster or airbags work. There were numerous accidents.
The US auto giant’s key drama has also become a lesson in what happens when a catastrophe occurs. is not prevented despite numerous warnings.
After all, the attention of the car manufacturers and also the control authorities is much greater today than it used to be, also because the Internet and social media can put enormous pressure on the car manufacturers. Seen in this way, even the VW emissions scandal had something good. The new Euro 6 emission standards not only include significantly more stringent monitoring instruments than before, but also because of “Dieselgate”. Cars are now tested by manufacturers and registration authorities in real traffic to ensure that there are no longer any defeat devices that can manipulate the emissions from the cars.