The Five Ws of Recalled Vehicles

April 4, 2018

Generally, when the manufacturer of your vehicle issues a recall, the vehicle owner will receive notice of it in the mail. It is usually a little card outlining the problem and urging you to take the car to a dealer to get it fixed. If the safety issue is serious, you might also receive a phone call. 


But how do recalls happen? What do you need to do when your car is recalled? What does a recall mean for an automaker's bottom line? And what happens to the serious safety recalled vehicles?


How and why do recalls happen?


The first thing to know is that every automaker issues recalls from time to time. There are many examples and no automaker is immune.


But, why do recalls happen? Simply put, an automaker issues a recall when it has some reason to believe that there is a defect that could compromise safety. 


These defects can be related to the car's design, a batch of parts that were not made as well as they should have been, or -- sometimes -- to a software bug that was not caught before the car went into production.


Automakers collect reports of safety-related failures and incidents with their vehicles. Some of these incidences are also reported to the U.S. government's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Sometimes, the automaker sees a pattern emerging and decides on its own to issue a recall. Many automakers, prefer to err on the side of caution by conducting a recall if there's any kind of safety concern. But sometimes, it is NHTSA that sees the pattern and orders the automaker to recall the vehicles.


Either way, there is usually some discussion between the automaker and NHTSA before a recall is issued.


What happens when you take your car in for a recall?


When you get a recall notice, it is a good idea to get the car fixed as soon as you can. The time it takes to make the repair can vary widely: A software update might take only a few minutes, while major work on brakes or the car's fuel system could take a few hours. Many dealership auto repairs will offer you a free loaner car. 


The automaker is obliged to pay all of the costs of the recall repair. Recall repairs are like any other business for their service department -- except in this case, the manufacturer will be paying the bill.


How much do recalls cost the automakers?


The cost of a recall campaign can vary widely. A software update does not make much of a dent on an automaker's bottom line. The total cost may be just a few million dollars to cover written notifications and the dealers' service charges. 


But a recall requiring major repairs or vehicle manufacturer buy backs can get very expensive, costing millions to billions.


What happens to the serious safety recalled vehicles?


An automobile manufacturer may be required to buy back or allow termination of leased defective vehicles due to a legal settlement.


In recent, one manufacturer bought back approximately 350,000 U.S. vehicles and are currently storing these vehicles in 37 remote areas across the U.S., and they are not just being stored in parking lots. Stored areas include a former football stadium, a paper mill and a giant patch of desert. One remote area pictured right. 


These approximately 350,000 vehicles are being stored and routinely maintained in a manner to ensure their long-term operability and quality, so that they may be returned to commerce, exported once U.S. regulators approve appropriate modifications or scrapped for parts.


How to protect yourself when buying a used vehicle?


Before you buy any used vehicle, go to the government website to see if that particular car or truck is subject to a recall and if that recall work has been done.


Many people use CarFax to check on a vehicle. Remember: CarFax does not indicate everything that happens to a vehicle.


It is also a good idea to ask the salesperson about any recalls. If you are told a recall has been repaired, ask for proof.


The smart move is to have any used vehicle you are interested in buying inspected by a qualified, independent mechanic before you sign a purchase contract.


Rosevear, John. (2017). “What Happens When Your Car is Recalled?” Retrieved from



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