Thursday, April 26, 2018
Business

GM recalls challenge company, frustrate customers

DETROIT — Nine million parts.

That's what General Motors needs to repair millions of cars it has recalled since Feb. 7. With ignition switches, power steering motors and other parts slowly arriving at dealers, frustrated drivers face waits of weeks or months, some while driving cars they fear are unsafe.

Any recall can present challenges for automakers and customers. Still, most recalls include fewer than 50,000 vehicles and are typically completed in two or three months.

But experts say eight simultaneous recalls covering 7 million vehicles is too much for any organization to handle quickly, even one as big as GM. Suppliers have to make the parts — millions aren't sitting in stock. GM has to notify customers, ship the parts to dealers worldwide and train mechanics how to do repairs.

GM says it will take six months to make and distribute all the parts for the largest recall: 2.6 million small cars with faulty ignition switches that the company links to 13 deaths. The switches, mainly in older Chevrolet Cobalts and Saturn Ions, can slip out of the "run" position into "accessory," shutting off engines and disabling power-assisted steering and airbags. GM has told dealers to offer concerned owners a loaner car while they wait for parts. Those cars also need to have a second part replaced.

So far, GM has put 45,000 customers in loaners, equal to 1.7 percent of the cars recalled for the ignition switches. GM isn't offering loaners to car owners affected by the other recalls.

There's no estimate yet on when the other recalls will be finished.

At least initially, the GM ignition switch recall didn't go smoothly.

"This is a big ol' hot mess," said Blair Parker, a Houston-area lawyer who owns a 2005 Cobalt included in the switch recall. Her dealer can't tell her exactly when parts will arrive.

A few months ago, Parker's car engine shut off unexpectedly when she hit the keys with her hand, an incident she had chalked up to user error. Now she worries the Cobalt's switch is defective and is driving a loaner car.

"We just decided it wasn't worth the risk," she said.

After the switch recall, GM conducted a review that turned up 4 million more vehicles with problems, including faulty power steering motors, transmission oil leaks, defective drive shafts and airbag troubles. About 500,000 of them need only a fitting to be tightened and don't need parts.

All told, the recalls present a herculean task for GM. Multiple suppliers are involved, and parts need to go to more than 4,300 dealers.

Driver frustrations

Dave Closs, chairman of the Supply Chain Management Department at Michigan State University, says GM dealers will have frustrated customers on their hands for a while.

Parts makers have to find factory space and workers to ramp up assembly lines. GM said Delphi Automotive has one line working seven days a week to make ignition switches, and it's setting up two more.

Finished parts must then be inspected for quality. After that comes shipping, a costly and slow process, Closs says.

"You're shipping relatively small shipments all over the world," he says.

Wendi Kunkel's 2010 Cobalt is part of the switch recall. Her dealer told her to pull everything off her key chain, which GM contends will stop the switches from turning off unexpectedly. But she's nervous about her 30-minute one-way commute near Dallas.

"I'm on a highway where I'm going 65 mph," the public relations representative says. "If my car were to switch into accessory or off, the likelihood of me crashing and not having airbags deployed — it's pretty terrifying to think about."

Dealers say small numbers of parts began arriving late in the week of April 7, and the pace has picked up. GM says it has shipped thousands of ignition switches and notified 1.4 million owners to set up repair appointments.

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