Editorial: Get Ready For Massive Recalls Driven By Modular Platforms

Derek Kreindler
by Derek Kreindler
editorial get ready for massive recalls driven by modular platforms

Today’s recall announcement by Toyota estimated to span at least 6.4 million vehicles, serves as a nice distraction from the ongoing recall occurring at cross-town rival General Motors. The Best & Brightest are free to squabble about which faceless corporate entity with zero regard for their individual well-being is the superior one. The rest of us have bigger fish to fry.

At 6.4 million vehicles, this Toyota recall is massive. It won’t be the last one. In fact, I think that ten years from now, this will be a low number.

The big trend in the auto industry today is modular platforms, which allow an enormous range of vehicles to share components. Volkswagen’s MQB architecture is an oft-cited example of this, largely because it takes a holistic approach to modularity. Much like Lego bricks, different “modules” can be assembled to create different vehicles. MQB is capable of spawning everything from a B-segment Volkswagen Polo to a D-segment Volkswagen Passat to an Audi TT sports car to a Volkswagen Touran minivan. Only a small number of “hard points” like the dimension from the center line of the front wheel to the pedal box, or the engine mounts, are fixed.

Within these modules are a high level of common parts, designed to be used across the entire range of MQB vehicles. This can include everything from whole powertrains to braking systems to smaller components that could be shared across a range of small to mid-size vehicles – which is, in theory, a truly vast quantity. Other commentators have expressed worries that MQB will lead to components being mismatched to their application. An A/C system engineered for a Passat might be overkill on a Polo (or vice versa) from a utility or financial standpoint.

From a purchasing standpoint, MQB will allow Volkswagen to buy lots and lots of widgets, receiving a significant discount on the cost per widget. This will equal significant savings for VW (though just how much they’ll save seems to depend on who you ask) while leading to shorter assembly times and more standardized production of vehicles. In the event that demand for a given model changes, a factory could scale back production of a slower selling model to help meet demand for the more popular one. This gives Volkswagen unprecedented flexibility in the way that cars can be designed, engineered and manufactured.

It also leaves Volkswagen in a very vulnerable position. What happens if they get a bad batch of widgets from a supplier, or the widget in question was poorly engineered? What if a manufacturing process was poorly designed, and the widgets aren’t installed properly? With so many vehicles assembled with the same faulty part or process, the impact could be enormous: millions of vehicles requiring repair, a black eye for Volkswagen and, heaven forbid, human lives negatively impacted.

This kind of exposure to potential quality defects and mass recalls was dubbed a “Cascading Failure” in a prior article, but many readers with engineering backgrounds objected. Instead, we can call it a “platform level failure”, which is the key difference between the scenario outlined above, and the Toyota recall, which affects everything from the Yaris subcompact to the Land Cruiser SUV.

But in a future where every car maker will have to adopt some kind of modular architecture, the likelihood of these events occurring is almost certain. And those who have invested most in common vehicle architectures are at the greatest risk.

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4 of 74 comments
  • Vojta Dobe Vojta Dobe on Apr 09, 2014

    You're leaving out one part of the equation. Sharing same parts among more models means that if the part goes wrong, the recall is larger. But, at the same time, it means that there is less variants of said parts to go wrong. Which means that there will be bigger recalls, but less of them. And it could be argued that since there will be less parts to design, automakers will be able to put more effort into designing each of them, so recalls can, in the end, be more scarce than they are now.

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    • FractureCritical FractureCritical on Apr 10, 2014

      see, you'd think that, but you'd be horribly wrong. the real horror of shared modular platforms, and one that noone has been talking about (yet) is the horrible, ungodly, soul crushing amount of management that must come with the concept. Having one widget, let's say it's a front subframe bolt, standard across all the cars in the platform means that bolt has to work in an economy car, where cost is supremely important. And it has to work in a diesel car, where drivetrain torque resistance is supremely important, and it has to work in a sports car, where weight is supremely important, and it has to work in an SUV with large tires where traction resistance in supremmely important. so you end up with a simple, ordinary bolt that has more engineering and management time devoted to it than say, a Corvette front control arm. Then a bolt breaks in a car and kills someone. How did it break? why? was it the application? how many applications? how many cars do we recall? All of them? what if we just do some and and then someone else dies, is it worth it? do we update the platform? stop production to update across all models? If we have to redesign the bolt, do we have to start all over again? what about the next generation of the platform? new models based off this platform? will the bolt be safe for all of it? All for a simple bolt. And there are a metric crapload of bolts in a car. This is why recalls on modular platforms just got about 5 orders of magnitude more complex. I said abuot 3 years ago taht MQB would eat VW from the inside out. And no one beleived me. I haven't been prove right yet, but I feel closer everyday. And let's face it; if ANY MAKER is going to exercise engineering with a reach that exceeds grasp, it's going to be VW.

  • RogerB34 RogerB34 on Apr 10, 2014

    Does it follow that there would be fewer recalls if platforms were not modular? Or is the issue not modular but quality control?

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  • MaintenanceCosts These are everywhere around here. I'm not sure the extra power over a CR-V hybrid is worth the fragile interior materials and the Kia dealership experience.
  • MaintenanceCosts It's such a shame about the unusable ergonomics. I kind of like the looks of this Camaro and by all accounts it's the best-driving of the current generation of ponycars. A manual 2SS would be a really fun toy if only I could see out of it enough to drive safely.
  • ToolGuy Gut feel: It won't sell all that well as a new vehicle, but will be wildly popular in the used market 12.5 years from now.(See FJ Cruiser)