Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 October 2019

The air bag: The facts of failure highlighted in car recalls

It should be heartening to see these recalls in the news, because what underwrites these enormously expensive programmes is the question of accountability.
A deployed airbag is seen in a Nissan vehicle at the LKQ Pick Your Part salvage yard on May 22, 2015 in Medley, Florida. The largest automotive recall in history centers around the defective Takata Corp. air bags that are found in millions of vehicles that are manufactured by BMW, Chrysler, Daimler Trucks, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota.  Joe Raedle / Getty Images / AFP
A deployed airbag is seen in a Nissan vehicle at the LKQ Pick Your Part salvage yard on May 22, 2015 in Medley, Florida. The largest automotive recall in history centers around the defective Takata Corp. air bags that are found in millions of vehicles that are manufactured by BMW, Chrysler, Daimler Trucks, Ford, General Motors, Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota. Joe Raedle / Getty Images / AFP

What would you consider an acceptable failure rate? One in 10,000? One in 100,000? The latter sounds pretty good if you’re baking a soufflé or planting rose bushes, but less so when human life hangs in the balance. I consider the acceptable failure rate of my heart, for example, to be zero.

Six Sigma, the popular process-­improvement methodology employed by General Motors and Ford, and made famous by Jack Welch during his tenure as chief executive of General Electric, addresses this concern by targeting 3.4 defects per million units. Intellectually, I know that’s an excellent rate. Emotionally, especially when my children are in the car, I’m looking for an error rate of less than one in a billion.

Nissan recently announced the recall of four million cars with airbag problems. Recently, I was visiting a friend abroad who, during a quick trip to the market in his recalled car (which he said had superior cargo), ­informed me: “I really should have taken the rental car.” When I asked him why the car had been recalled, he told it me it was because the airbag in the car was prone to emitting potentially deadly shrapnel on deployment. His dealership had given him the rental because of a backlog of airbag-­replacements jobs – he will have it for a year.

Every life matters on the roads, yet the greater good is served by focusing on statistical significance, not individual tragedy. Traffic deaths remain a serious concern, but according to Brigadier Ghaith Hassan Al ­Zaabi, director general of the Traffic Coordination Department at the Ministry of Interior, the numbers are getting better. “The number of deaths has decreased to 5.99 deaths per 100,000 people in 2015, compared to 6.31 deaths per 100,000 people in 2014,” he said in a report. According to that same data set, the most failure-prone component in any vehicle in the UAE is the human behind the wheel – the leading causes of the accidents listed in the report, fatal or otherwise, all amount to driver error. Component failure doesn’t make the list. In part, that’s because the system works. Thousands of cars were recalled in the UAE last year, and more undoubtedly will be this year. That already includes Honda, BMW, Chrysler, Ford, Lexus, Mazda and Toyota, which all recalled cars over airbag problems stemming from a shared supplier.

It should be heartening to see these recalls in the news, because what underwrites these enormously expensive programmes is the question of accountability. The expense to the manufacturers is enormous – GM settled its faulty-ignition scandal for US$900 million (Dh3.31 billion) last year; Toyota paid $1.2bn for its unintended-acceleration scandal a few years back.

Volkswagen, meanwhile, rolled out a preliminary plan last month that would compensate approximately 500,000 TDI owners whose cars were rigged to beat American emissions tests. VW will offer a choice between buying back the cars or having them retrofitted, likely at the expense of performance. “Volkswagen is committed to earning back the trust of its customers, dealers, regulators and the American public,” the company said in a brief statement.

Chances are that some TDI owners aren’t particularly swayed by this sentiment – under Six Sigma, it would be less than two individuals among those half million owners. Somehow, I suspect the reality is a little different.

Updated: May 11, 2016 04:00 AM

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