Yesterday the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration hosted a day-long event focused on improving vehicle recall repair rates. Last year there were 64 million recalls issued and on average 25% of vehicles will go unrepaired.

retoolingThe day started with opening remarks from both the Secretary of Transportation, Anthony Foxx, and the NHTSA Administrator, Mark Rosekind. Then presentations from General Motors and NHTSA Representatives, followed by two panels comprised of dealers and other industry representatives. Each group shared various creative ways in which they addressed recalls. From extended weekend hours and onsite repairs for fleet customers to targeted ads on social media – it was an extremely constructive discussion on the topic of recalls. It was also being recorded for public consumption.

Four hours later it was time for lunch

Instead of joining the mob of lawyers, lobbyists and industry loyalists into South East D.C. for food, I opted to remain in the quiet, and now empty, sunlight-filled atrium. I sat quietly, savoring both a chicken salad sandwich and the warm light coming through the large glass opening overhead. In the distance Administrator Rosekind had gathered a flock of attentive suits around him at a small round table. I overheard him mention his desire to “change the culture.”

I pondered what culture he aimed to change. The profit-conscious corporate culture that puts earnings ahead of safety? The apathetic consumer culture who doesn’t have time for vehicle repairs? Or perhaps he was speaking about his own inherited lackluster government culture?

One could argue any of these three groups could use some form of culture change. Changing culture is hard, takes a long time but where it really shines is in executive-level speak.

Carrots? Uh, we ate all the carrots.

As the day progressed it became clear that many in attendance believed the only way to increase remedy rates was to hit owners with a bigger stick, or sticks if you asked some.

After lunch participants broke out into 1 of 4 working groups. The largest breakout session of the day, and the one I attended, was titled Improving Completion Rates. Over 40 people filled the room, many of them industry representatives in one form or another and a few representing Members of Congress with an interest in vehicle recalls. I was the only “media” person in the room. The facilitator reminded everyone that while this session would not be recorded be mindful that there could be media in the room. After a long round robin where each one of introduced ourselves, we engaged in various brainstorming activities. Slowly a very clear theme started to emerge – the owner is the problem.

In a way they were all right, yet at the same time the owner wouldn’t be in this situation had it not been for some error upstream in the development of the vehicle or part.

Many ideas were thrown out to fix the problem – defined as improved recall repair rate. Many of the ideas involved penalizing the owner in one form or another. From restricting vehicle registrations to increasing insurance rates – the collective group wanted to make it so painful for the owner they’d have to scream mercy and bring their car into the dealership for repair.

Many of the ideas proposed I supported and even advocated for in an earlier post on improving recall rates.

This was different though. These people represented the industry at fault for creating the defect, for creating this problem. Call it a double standard, but hearing them damn the apathetic owner seemed wrong. In a way I feel I should be empathetic towards automakers in their effort to repair vehicle defects and get consumers to do what amounts to basic maintenance – but I can’t.

After our ideas were tossed out and captured on large sheets of paper we were required to vote on our collective solutions by placing red, blue, green and yellow colored stickers next to our favorite resolution. The winner, with an overwhelming 24 colored stickers, and not surprisingly, “Mandatory repair to register” – which is a pretty big stick.

In closing each were asked what they would do today within their respective industry or company to improve recall rates. There were a few non-answers here and there, others said advocate for greater funding for NHTSA, and a handful of people said they were working on solutions, but didn’t feel they were ready to be shared with (looking directly at me) the public.

There were some other good ideas such as not selling or renting cars with open recalls and using direct vehicle notification like a chime or Check Engine Light to notify owners – but by in large the greater audience felt the only way to get beyond 75% was with bigger and bigger sticks.

To the American car owner that can’t find the time to get their vehicle repaired – start shopping for a good helmet.