Humble Opinions: Total Recall

Mike Humble:

Cars have certainly become more efficient, comfortable, safer and ecologically sound in recent years. When was the last time you ever really smelt that pungent yet sweet smell of an engine on choke on a cold winters morning – exactly, and like me do you smile when an old classic rattles by encouraging a long intake of air up your nostrils. Where once cars seemed to be in production forever, model changes and revisions come and go with all the seemingly regularity of this weeks No:1 record. We do of course live in a Sci Fi / Hi Tec world where most of the testing and endurance of a car’s minerals can be replicated on plasma screen.

In days of old, they called this kind of design and simulation “CAD-CAM” which stood for computer aided design and computer aided manufacture and one of the pioneers of this was our very own Austin Rover. I fondly remember as a young apprentice being proudly shown the spooky looking Kawasaki Unimate welding robots in Longbridge’s vast and now flattened West Works assembling Austin Metro body shells with no fuss or stress. It truly was an amazing site to see with no risk of Union strife or the nagging of the wife to phase their quality of work – all the robots required was the payment of the electricity bill.


The total sum of technology required to power up even the most basic of motor car is quite phenomenal if you lay back and really think about it. Being old enough to remember electronic ignition becoming commonplace makes one wonder and sometimes become almost breathless at how technology has beyond doubt transformed the way we design and build cars. And yet despite the onward march of electronic wizardry, it still requires a human touch to know when something looks, feels or smells just right. It still needs an experienced person in a starched white overcoat to sign off the all important assembly line docket.

It still requires a time served engineer to assess every step of the process of build and take the car out on the road or test track to give the company thumbs up. And the harshest critic of all excluding our good friends May Hammond or Clarkson is Joe Customer, if he or she doesn’t like it, its dead in the water. One of the key areas that every car manufacturer or for that matter – business strives for is what is known in the trade as right first time. In the current trend of buyer beware and access all areas of information via the net, car manufacturers have no other option to aim for the bullseye every time, and most do initially.

It still needs the human touch to ensure a car looks, feels and drives just right - Are we just TOO reliant on technology?
It still needs the human touch to ensure a car looks, feels and drives just right – Are we just TOO reliant on technology?

But going back to an earlier part, computers and software play so many different roles from selection of component to simulated performance programmes where something like a seat runner or door hinge can be performance tested in a two dimensional world in front of your very eyes on a flat screen monitor. This made me think about all this after reading some information about the worrying number of recalls that vehicle builders end up having to do in order to cure a fault or design error that can sometimes cause owner inconvenience, cost or in extreme cases – a fatality.

You may find this staggering but almost 50% of all the cars sold here in the UK end up being recalled by the manufacturer for remedial attention. If you crunch the figures a different way, it shows that 1 in 2 of every car sold between 2010 and 2012 in one way or another, has some kind of defect that requires attention. Volkswagen have recently recalled over 2.5 million vehicles over matters such as defective lights, fuel system problems and the risk of the wrong engine oil being used at the factory. This recall is one of the biggest ever recorded in motoring history.

The Metro fuel filler recall made National news. Recalls are so common today that we rarely hear about it - until the letter from the manufacturer drops onto the mat.
The Metro fuel filler recall made National news. Recalls are so common today that we rarely hear about it – until the letter from the manufacturer drops onto the mat.

Now, you would have thought the Germans and the Japanese would do better in the grand scheme of things but the Japs reside at the number 1 & 2 spot for the ratio of cars per recall. Equally notable is the fact that we would once laugh till we split over Eastern Bloc cars. Our Czech mates Skoda have the lowest ratio of recallable faults per unit sold – who’s laughing now indeed. Of course, a great deal of the recalls tend to be erring on the side of caution but the compensation culture we live in quite rightly gives manufacturers the collywobbles. That said at the end of the day – a recall is a direct result of a serious quality or practice related fault.

Car may be leaner and greener which of course is a good thing, but you see newer cars being broken for scrap because of expensive engine failures or even less serious issues. Cars are so complex and difficult to work on nowadays and I recently spotted a six year old Vectra sitting forlorn on the roof of another car simply because of a clutch failure – two hours of toil on the driveway with your best mate on your 2.0 Sierra would once be the cure. Modern mechanics have lost their ability to fault diagnose because of an over reliance of technology too. Ask a room full of 16 year old apprentice fitters what a feeler blade is and I’m sure the reply will be a muted cackle of embarrassed laughter.

But getting back to the point in question, Robbie the Robot or Colin the Computer are very clever chappies, but extensive testing in the real world by human engineers is the only way to prove, develop and design a motor car to function properly before it is fit for sale. Computer simulation may work well in some areas but real life testing and proving is indeed the acid test. Simulation may save time and money in the short term, but sometimes these recalls are life threatening –

What price would you put on that?

Should you be interested or concerned about recalls, you can Click Here for information about past and present UK motor related safety notices.





  1. Mike,

    Enjoyed the latest edition and especially the Kawasaki robots bit.
    My e-mail address above is for my recently started PhD in
    “The Measurement of Perceived Quality in the Automotive Industry and how to Engineer Craftsmanship – a Control Engineering Perspective”.
    Yes, at the tender age of 55 I am a student again! I have a discount card too. Might just quote you contributions in my work, if I may.
    Have been spending happy hours recently signing off MG3’s on the track – that is one great car for under £10k – have a peep at the web-site or look out for the ad on TV or on YouTube – there is a good one by our Salesman Dave Clarke onYouTube; just type in “Dave MG3”

  2. I’ll tell you who is excellent at Recalls and that is Fiat! My mother’s Punto, a 1997 R reg 1.2 SX model. Recalled no less than 3 times during her ownership for various items, it was collected, a courtesy car left and dropped back, at the correct time, repaired, washed and valeted each time.

  3. A thought provoking article indeed.

    Let’s bear in mind though firstly that recalls are a comparatively recent thing, and issues we consider as justifying major recalls today were fairly commonplace yesterday, yet received little or no publicity let alone recalls (to take but one example: anyone remember SU carburettor float valves sticking & allowing petrol to cascade over exhaust manifolds?).

    Secondly that human intervention can be the cause of poor quality as well as the reverse, given the variability of human workmanship. If you look at the smaller manufacturers, even those of exalted reputation, their number of recalls compared to the number of vehicles they produce tends to be far higher that the mainstream manufacturers. Why? – because they are extensively hand-built, and wherever you have hand building you have the potential for variability and hence quality issues. At least robotic manufacture and assembly ensures uniformity. Unfortunately the flip side of that is that when a model manufactured largely by robots does have a problem, every vehicle of that type is likely to have that problem, hence the huge numbers involved in the likes of VW’s present recalls.

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