Technical service bulletins are a way for auto manufacturers to inform dealerships and service departments about minor issues that might require repair in their vehicles. They are also used to alert these groups about potential issues that are not yet fully understood. The bulletins do not generally require repairs of the problem and fall far short of the safety impact of a recall. General Motors has recently come under fire for its use of these bulletins in situations where a recall was likely the appropriate action. The issue has been raised in connection with the delayed recall of millions of vehicles, including Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 models, which have been found to contain faulty ignition switches. The safety issue has been connected to 13 fatal car accidents and numerous injuries.
A review conducted by the New York Times showed that GM repeatedly issued service bulletins before eventually being forced to order a recall. According to a spokesperson for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, safety defects must be addressed with safety recalls. Recalls force manufacturers to notify customers directly and provide a remedy for the safety defect. They are substantially more expensive than issuing a service bulletin. A former head of the NHTSA referred to GM's use of safety bulletins in these situations as "highly inappropriate."
The ignition problems in the Chevy Cobalt were first brought to the attention of officials at GM in 2001. In 2005, GM issued a service bulletin to dealers concerning the defect. The ignition defect finally culminated in a massive recall this past February. The slow response has drawn the ire of safety experts and car owners who have been exposed to a dangerous auto defect for a substantial period of time. While dealers were receiving bulletins, car owners were largely left in the dark about the lurking danger that their vehicles would simply lose power in the middle of traffic.
The use of safety bulletins rather than proper recalls is likely to be an issue in the numerous lawsuits concerning the GM ignition switch defect. GM will be asked to explain why serious safety problems were addressed in this manner.
Source: New York Times, "Sending Alerts Instead, G.M. Delayed Car Recalls," by Danielle Ivory, Rebecca R. Ruiz and Vill Vlasic, 19 April 2014