Tokyo – Jan. 31, 2019 – Subaru has paused production of multiple vehicle types at its factory in Japan due to the possibility of a defect in the cars’ power steering systems. The automaker is deciding how to proceed with the 14,000 affected cars, some of which were sold in Japan and others of which are destined for export to other territories. Most of the cars impacted are likely bound for the U.S. The Forester, XV and Impreza are the three models that may include the defective component.
A report from Nikkei noted that recent years have seen over 500,000 cars recalled by Subaru. While past recalls have been caused by potential faults in components such as valve springs, as well as actions such as regulatory compliance failures. The most recent plant shutdown has not turned into a fully declared recall, but it has impacted cars even beyond those that may have the defective part, as the factory equipment is employed to produce multiple vehicle types.
The problem that has caused the concern involves part of the electrical assembly used in power steering. The component in question is a third-party item produced by Hitachi Automotive systems and used in the three Subaru models. The Nikkei report explained that when the part fails, a warning light activates on the dashboard, and steering the car becomes harder for the driver. Xinhua noted there have been two instances of such a failure happening, though no one has been reported injured yet.
The fact that Subaru cars use a unique engine configuration known as the “boxer” layout may have exacerbated the challenges of the situation. The components for these engines are not compatible with generic hardware that work in more standardized engines. Subaru technicians searched for a solution to the current issue that did not require manufacturing and ordering a “made from scratch” replacement part. That meant isolating the exact issue causing the fault and correcting it.
To remove the defective parts from the supply chain, Subaru shut down its main production facility in Gunma Prefecture, Japan, which produces 2,600 cars a day when operational. Most of the vehicles produced in the plant – 80 percent – are exported, and Nikkei added that 60 percent of those cars go to U.S. dealerships. After ascertaining which part would have to be replaced to resume production, Subaru reopened its plant on schedule, according to Xinhua.
As the component is produced by an outside supplier, Hitachi has also been contacted for input. Hitachi stated that problems during car assembly are unlikely, which may mean the electronics within the steering components are faulty.
Timeline of Events
The potential recall at Subaru has developed over a relatively short time frame. All the affected vehicles that contain the potentially defective part were produced between late December 2018 and the Jan. 16 shutdown of the Gumna plant. Upon discovery of the fault, Subaru declared a week-long shutdown and sent out recall notices for roughly 780 vehicles that were made at the facility in question and sent to be sold on the Japanese market instead of overseas, according to the Xinhua report.
Nikkei added that the quality control division within Subaru, which has been the subject of some of the automaker’s recent scandals in the Japanese market, did not catch the potential power steering problem. Instead, two reports of problems with steering were used to determine the part responsible. Fortunately, there were no collisions or injuries of any kind reported due to the power steering issues. While the vehicles may have become hard to control, they didn’t crash.
The automaker’s recent series of scandals, as described by Nikkei, began in late 2017. At that time, Subaru revealed that some of its inspections were performed by staff without the proper certifications. After that, more troubling details emerged. In November 2018, a valve spring problem caused the recall of 101,000 vehicles, with 100,000 more added because of legal compliance issues.
These recalls have taken a toll on the company’s finances. In the immediate aftermath of the plant closure notice, Subaru’s stock price fell 6 percent on the Tokyo exchange. The announcement that the stoppage would only last a week provided some relief, but the impact was still a net negative, demonstrating the lasting financial impact of repeated recall events and quality-control problems.
Due to several complicating factors, the exact course of action Subaru will take is unclear. The roughly 14,000 exported cars that may contain faulty Hitachi steering components have not been officially recalled. Since the vehicles have all been produced over the past few months, many of them are likely still in the custody of dealers rather than customers.
The automaker is pondering sending replacement parts overseas to replace the faulty components, according to Xinhua, rather than recalling the vehicles to Japan to be refitted. The domestic recall has been the most straightforward part of the process, with the under-1,000 vehicles produced for the Japan market already recalled.
Since the production facility impacted is primarily used to produce export vehicles, and most of those cars are bound for the U.S., there is a chance American regulators may soon be involved in the recall process. Recent weeks have seen no new announcements from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, as it shut down operations along with other Federal agencies during the budget impasse. During that silence, some automakers have still issued their own recall notices for U.S. vehicles, including the latest wave of Takata air bag inflator repairs.