In July 2010, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration began an investigation into the Volkswagen Passat. The Passats, built from 2002 to 2003 with turbocharged four-cylinder engines, were catching fire due to faulty ignition coils. After the investigation expanded into 2001 to 2007 Passat models, 43 actual fires—and 83 incidents of smoke, and 9 more undetermined fires—were reported and noted by the agency, with no injuries, and the only casualty being an endorsement for future Volkswagen products.
Perhaps ominously, the NHTSA determined these engine fires didn’t warrant a recall: “A safety-related defect has not been identified at this time,” reads the official report, “and further use of agency resources does not appear to be warranted.” The fires were contained within the engine compartment, occurring above the engine block and kept underneath the hood, in other words, safely tucked away from passengers. For the NHTSA, that’s all it took. There’s no further concern for safety, and the 19-month investigation—which affected over 325,000 Volkswagen vehicles—is now, officially, closed.
The NHTSA’s recall methodology requires very specific examples of a defect: if the issue can’t be traced clearly then there’s little chance of wasting more effort on a full-blown recall. In this example, the agency knows that the ignition coils are faulty, but not why they are. Compare this to a recent rash of airbag recalls, where the propellant inside the bag was mixed incorrectly, causing the entire airbag to deflate improperly in case of an accident. Here, it’s simply not enough to replace the old faulty ignition coils with new ignition coils if the fault is still present. A recall would need a more specific reason than that. Remember, recalls are pricey, and any manufacturer would rather issue a more cost-effective service bulletin.
In closing, the NHTSA would like to remind us that “the closing of this investigation does not constitute a finding…that a safety-related defect does not exist,” which indicates the possibility that 1.) these Volkswagens might injure someone again, and 2.) the NHTSA may re-open the investigation and possibly even issue a recall at some point in time if they can find a reason to.
Let’s hope nobody gets injured in the meantime.