Automakers clashed with NHTSA over public recall tool

In this morning’s Morning Shift Matt Hardibro pointed out that GM used a Technical Service Bulletin (TSB) to skirt the official recall notification process. He also hit on the legal requirement for a public facing VIN look up tool, something I wrote about last year.

First, to set the stage, we’ll start off with an image from a GAO report dated 2011 (above). In this very government-approved flow chart you can see how automakers and NHTSA work together during a vehicle recall. Pretty neat, eh?


Now on to the more boring and word-heavy stuff.

SEC. 31301 of the latest highway authorization, code named MAP-21, instructed NHTSA to use their rulemaking power to ensure automaker recall info could be accessed by everyday Joes and Josephines via the World Wide Web.


Note: The highway authorization expires later this fall. Given these recent happenings Congress could legislate on the recall process, again.

Section 31301 of the law required recall notifications to;

  1. Be available to the public on the Internet
  2. Be searchable by vehicle make and model and VIN;
  3. Be in a format that preserves consumer privacy
  4. Include information about each recall that has not been completed for each vehicle.

All Your Data Are Belong To U.S.

At first NHTSA wanted to own all the recall data. It would be housed on their servers, updated daily and people would flock to the website to plug in their VIN to check for recalls. The estimated cost to automakers to establish this system: 12, 180 burden hours.

Automakers kind of lost it.

Many of the comments submitted to the proposal cited privacy concerns and “burdensome costs.” While not stated in any of the comments, I’m sure a few automakers weren’t comfortable with NHTSA having daily accounts as to how fast (or slow) they were remedying vehicle recalls.

NHTSA eventually conceded, sort of.

While NHTSA lost the battle to house the data, they didn’t give up totally. The concession was that automakers would be required to create dedicated consumer-facing websites that offer a VIN look-up tool.

But, and this is where it gets interesting, automakers will also be required to create secure APIs so NHTSA can still pull the data and use to access their recall information.

I know what you’re thinking, why couldn’t NHTSA just provide a link to the automaker’s page established under this mandate? That’s a very good question indeed. Instead NHTSA did this:

“As part of today’s rule, manufacturers must allow secure electronic transfer of manufacturer recall data, for one VIN at a time, to NHTSA’s software applications. NHTSA’s applications can identify a manufacturer by its world manufacturer identifier (WMI), given in the VIN, and make a secure communication with the manufacturer’s system at a pre-specified uniform resource identifier (URI). NHTSA’s software applications communicate with a manufacturer specific Application Programming Interface (API), at a given URI, using a predefined identification and key combination to securely identify NHTSA communication with the manufacturer system. This ensures only NHTSA applications can access the manufacturer data via this API on a secure Internet protocol.”

NHTSA, upset because they couldn’t get the data themselves, will require automakers to still provide the data thus ensuring NHTSA’s website,, remains useful to consumers.

Automakers clashed with NHTSA over public recall tool

On a somewhat separate but related note it looks like NHTSA spends money on Google Ad Words for their website, which is odd because NHTSA already ranks high in organic results. Curious what that cost them a year. Anyway...getting back to the VIN Search Tool

Does this make the process any easier for consumers?

Could competing sites confuse vehicle owners (i.e. is the recall information NHTSA has the same as the information on

Maybe there is a larger benefit, but I’m not seeing it.

This redundant offering and complicated API system seems like NHTSA’s way of trying to remain relevant in the vehicle recall process. If the agency wants to remain relevant, they should focus more of their effort on analyzing consumer complaints and hiring qualified staff to address evolving technology and less on becoming the number one visited vehicle safety advice website.

In a letter dated October 4, 2013 Global Automakers, a lobbying group that represents many global automakers, as their name indicates, had this to say in a Petition to Reconsider on this rule:

“We agree with the agency’s conclusion set forth in the preamble to the final rule that MAP-21 does not require the agency to establish its own, independent VIN look-up table for recalls. In fact, reading sections 31301(a) and (b) together strongly suggests that Congress intended the agency to rely on the manufacturers to provide this capability. Establishing a fully independent, redundant system within the agency would be wasteful and would involve unnecessary complexity.”

Meanwhile earlier this year (Jan 2014) NHTSA held a public meeting on the technical specifications automakers will need to address to support the VIN-based safety recalls look-up tool that will be housed at Automakers were in attendance and I’m sure they continued to raise their concerns about over complicating the process and the cost and complexity of the whole thing. Not to mention the 1 year deadline.

Getting back to the original topic – Technical Service Bulletins. I do have some questions:

Should the media cover TSBs? Because automakers don’t write press releases touting their new TSB or recall notifications many outlets, like Autoblog for example, will never write about them. If automakers were require to post this information to their news feed, thus triggering the requirement for some automotive websites to cover it, would it increase public awarness?

Should TSBs and Recall Notifications be combined? If so could that diminish the value of a recall (i.e. bad cylinder may cause your brakes to fail vs. software update 23 to CUE for slow response.)

Recall Notifications are generated when a “vehicle or equipment contains a defect related to motor vehicle safety or does not comply with an applicable motor vehicle safety standard [49 USC § 30118]” but there doesn’t seem to be a standard for TSBs.

The legal issue of a recall appears to come down to safety; is the defect a direct safety concern and/or is it not in compliance with the federal motor vehicle safety standard. If the answer to either of these questions is yes, you have two options: file a petition of non-consequential compliance or issue a recall in accordance with 49 USC § 30118.

No where does the law say if you have a safety defect issue a technical service bulletin.