Tesla’s recall record is better than most major car companies

Tesla vehicles on the make.
Tesla vehicles on the make.
Image: Reuters/Joseph White
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Tesla’s latest recall comes at perhaps the worst possible time. The electric carmaker is busy fending off Wall Street naysayers as it seeks to assure customers and investors alike that it can deliver quality and quantity for its new Model 3.

Tesla’s voluntary recall of 123,000 Model S sedans, announced on March 29, certainly didn’t help. The company found that a power-steering bolt could corrode in regions with extreme weather and specific types of road salt (it was first noticed at a Montreal service center). A supplier will be footing the bill.

So is Tesla really falling down on quality? While the Model S hiccup doesn’t look good, data suggest the company is doing better than most when it comes to recalls. Between 2012 and 2016, Tesla recalled just 941 cars per 1,000 manufactured, compared with the industry average of 1,964, according to National Highway Transportation Safety Administration data analyzed by car search engine iSeeCars.com. The comparison looked at carmakers’ North American operations.

Why are recall figures so high? Most cars are recalled more than once. Heightened vigilance by enforcement agencies, a greater number of cars on the road, suppliers’ parts being shared by more models, and newly discovered problems in old vehicles have all pushed recalls to record highs. Issues can range from the cosmetic to life-threatening, such as the massive Takata airbag and GMC ignition switch recalls in recent decades. (You can search for your car’s recall history here.)

The latest Tesla recall, said Julie Blackley of iSeeCars last week, would probably just move the company out of the top rankings and closer to the average. “I don’t think this speaks to the quality of the vehicles they are producing,” Blackley wrote by email. “Recalls are to be expected from automakers, and we will likely see more from Tesla as more vehicles are being produced.”

Of course, not all recalls are created equal. The industry average for those involving serious risks—fire, collision, or injury—was 88.1% between 1985 and 2016. All of Tesla’s recalls fall into this category. Still, Blackley gives the company credit for exhibiting an “abundance of caution when their safety is questioned.” Tesla has been the most proactive in issuing recalls voluntarily upon discovering issues, instead of waiting for the federal government to order them. On average, only half of automakers’ recalls between 1985 and 2016 were voluntary.

Meanwhile, Tesla is taking heat for “dead batteries, leaking tail lamps, protruding headlights, door rattles, and body panels that don’t line up” on its new Model 3. Automotive experts expected as much from a rookie carmaker competing with the majors in mass-production.

But if Tesla succeeds, it may find that it has a long-term advantage over traditional carmakers. Conventional cars are far more complicated than electric ones: Tesla says its luxury sedan’s drive train— the system connecting the transmission to the axles—has just 17 moving parts, compared with hundreds in cars with internal combustion engines.  Simpler vehicles may mean fewer recalls.

Michelle Krebs, an analyst at Autotrader, says Tesla’s recall doesn’t indicate declining quality, but she worries that the company’s struggle to automate its factory does. Final assembly of vehicles is notoriously difficult; fine-tuning to get doors to fit perfectly, or screws to thread flawlessly, has made it nearly impossible to fully automate the last stages of production, as Tesla is trying to do. If the company is rushing to meet targets today, Krebs worries it means quality issues tomorrow.