How Small Fleets Manage Recalls
Photo courtesy of International Franchise Systems
As a fleet operator, have you been getting more notices in the mail recently regarding vehicle recalls?
There’s a reason for that — since 2014, more than 150 million vehicles in the U.S. have been recalled. To put this in perspective, 260 million total vehicles are registered. In 2014, a record 50 million vehicles were recalled. Before then, the U.S. averaged only 16.1 million recalled units annually for 10 years.
This spike would seem contrary to the reality that vehicles are designed and built safer than ever before. Nonetheless, technological advances have promoted a better understanding of potential safety defects, which has compelled an abundance of caution from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and other regulators.
The recent Takata airbag recall, the largest in automotive history, certainly contributed to the overall recall numbers as well as increased scrutiny.
For operators of small commercial fleets, the safety of your employees is paramount. But taking work vehicles off the road creates logistical and administrative headaches while denying your company an asset that helps produce revenue. What can you do to improve your recall process?
Auto manufacturers weigh in on streamlining recall procedures at the OEM level, while dealers and fleet operators share tips on minimizing downtime and expediting the handling of recalled vehicles on the ground.
Amid the sharp increase in recall numbers and volume, manufacturers have been honing their procedures.
Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) recently initiated its Fleet Recall Parts Ordering Process, which helps ensure dealers can obtain the proper allocations of recall service parts for fleet customers, says Jim Sassarossi, director, Mopar Fleet Service and Parts at FCA. “In addition to responding more quickly, we are striving to ensure parts availability at campaign launch,” he says.
FCA also manages a fleet customer hotline for scheduling service and parts procurement as well as an online recall database that allows owners to batch search by VIN — up to eight vehicles at a time — an industry exclusive, according to FCA. (Visit https://www.mopar.com/en-us/my-vehicle/recalls.html.)
As well, “Our systems are fully integrated with those used by fleet management companies,” Sassarossi says, “so as weekly ownership and driver information is provided to us, we can respond efficiently when the need arises.”
At General Motors, larger fleet clients are connected to its Fleet Recall Program, a system in which GM’s IT department uploads a fleet’s VINs to check against the recall database. This expedites the process and avoids owners receiving multiple mailed notices for each affected VIN, says Edgar Pearce, manager, fleet service, operations, and support at GM.
GM’s fleet sales account executives are another resource. “They may directly call customers to answer any questions they have, dialogue about how a specific recall will impact their fleet and their business, and help determine the best solution to get their fleet vehicles serviced in an efficient manner,” Pearce says.
For the Takata airbag recall, manufacturers have been working with NHTSA’s order to remedy by region, giving priority to hot and humid areas where the inflators are more likely to rupture.
Ford and other manufacturers took the extra step of installing replacement airbag inflators for customers in the interim of a permanent repair, says Elizabeth Weigandt, safety communications manager at Ford Motor Co. (Ford’s recall site is https://owner.ford.com/tools/account/maintenance/recalls.html.)
For fleets of all sizes, though especially smaller commercial fleets, “Dealers are a fleet owner’s closest ally,” says Sassarossi.
“We encourage our fleet partners to build relationships with their local dealerships,” says Pearce. “Together they can establish systems to make recall fixes as quickly and efficiently as possible.”
For fleets, the vehicle recall notification process starts when NHTSA posts the notice to its database: https://vinrcl.safercar.gov/vin/. Concurrently, auto manufacturers generally post the same notices to their publicly available databases. At that time, auto manufacturers notify their franchised dealers internally and issue news releases on the recalls.
By law, auto manufacturers must mail recall notices to registered owners within 60 days of the posting, though the notifications are generally mailed sooner, often within two weeks. For most vehicle owners, the process of remedying a recall begins upon receipt of this mailed notification.
Before receiving a mailed notice, fleet operators may become aware of a recall that might affect their vehicles. At that point, they could visit NHTSA’s online recall database, or the recall databases managed by the manufacturers, and type in VINs of the vehicles they think might be affected.
If this search returns a match, the owner could call the dealer to reconfirm the units affected and schedule service, which may get them in line for repairs ahead of those waiting until receipt of the mailed notice.
Yet the proactive approach comes with a caveat: Recalls are often announced before the total VIN pool is loaded into the database. Therefore, a VIN may not appear immediately. “After the announcement is made to the press, it’s prudent to wait until the week that customer letters are mailed and then go to our website to see if the VIN falls into this particular recall,” says Weigandt.
To offer scope on recalls for our readers, Business Fleet looked at the universe of recalls from 2014 through 2016 with recall data collated by AutoAp. AutoAp filtered recalls in those years specifically for pickup trucks and work vans, both light- and medium-duty, sorted by recall type. The recalls cover vehicles made by Ford, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, General Motors, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mercedes, and Isuzu.
As well, recalls are often equipment specific. Therefore, an owner who saw a news report of a recall covering a specific truck make and model he operates may not yet know that his trucks, all four-wheel drives, are excluded. “The most reliable notification is the one you get in the mail,” says Eric Mayne, media relations manager and spokesperson for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.
Some fleets have complained that dealers prioritize retail repairs over fleet. If that’s true anecdotally, it doesn’t make business sense. “For us, we don’t prioritize fleet or retail,” says Roy Durham Jr., fleet director of SoCal Penske, a multi-franchise dealer. “It pays the same. Warranty work is warranty work.”
Moreover, as dealers are paid by the manufacturer for warranty work, repairing recalls is by no means an imposition. “There would be nothing better for me to hear from a fleet manager saying I’ve got 25 vehicles that need recall work done,” Durham says.
Dealers may offer fleets replacement vehicles at their discretion; most do not. Durham does help fleets by picking up and dropping off vehicles at clients’ places of business.
In this case and in a general sense, it’s always better for fleets to work with a true fleet dealer, not only with fleet sales staff but also those with a dedicated service counter or service writer for fleets.
Honing the Process
Jeb Lopez, owner of Wheelz Up, an auto parts delivery business serving the D.C. metro area, asks the dealerships that sold him the vans to alert him for recalls and technical service bulletins (TSBs). Lopez also periodically types in his vehicles’ VINs into NHTSA’s online database to catch any notices that he may have missed.
For Gary Kulp, owner of Shade Outdoor Living Solutions in Austin, Texas, “Recalls are a pain in the butt.”
Kulp acts on recalls upon receiving the mailed notices. To minimize trips and drivers, he schedules with the dealer to rotate vehicles back-to-back instead of all at once. Moving equipment from a van scheduled for service to a temporary van and back again is a necessary evil.
This hassle is exacerbated when it comes to vans used by Kulp’s salespeople, who take the vans home with them each night. In addition to moving equipment, which takes about 30 minutes, shuttling to and from the dealer takes two workers and two vehicles.
Regarding these logistics, “We’ll prioritize,” Kulp says. Serious issues get top priority, but for those not safety- or wear-related, Kulp will wait to get multiple recalls fixed at one time.
Kulp says his dealers are prompt in returning his calls and scheduling recalls. His vehicles are generally out of service for recall work for one or two days. His dealers don’t offer replacement vehicles, but Kulp says he wouldn’t be able to take advantage anyway, as his vans are highly customized.
Because avoiding vehicle downtime — for whatever reason — is so critical, Kulp keeps a replacement vehicle in every class. “It’s too expensive not to do that,” he says. “To have a salesman or an installer out of a vehicle for a week is crippling. In my business, they’ll quit.”
In light of the spike in recall volume, overall repair rates are eroding.
After a 2015 rule mandating that recalls be announced even if parts aren’t yet available, some large recalls created a backlog of parts availability. Yet dealers say oftentimes they do have an adequate supply of parts, though owners are simply choosing not to repair their vehicles.
According to Carfax, more than 63 million vehicles with unrepaired recalls are now in use across the country, a 34% increase from 2016.
“Adopting a proactive safety recall management process will result in safer vehicles for your drivers, reduced vehicle downtime in waiting for parts and repair, and will ultimately lower your recall management overhead,” says Ross Macdonald, chief marketing officer for AutoAp, a safety recall management provider.