Monday, September 14, 2020

Hyundai Engine Fire Recalls: Lessons to Learn


With the COVID-19 situation, a lot of other things have dropped under the radar.  But in one way or another, life is still going on, people are buying and driving cars, and not all of those cars are behaving the way they should.  In particular, the South Korean automaker Hyundai has had a serious issue with their cars catching fire.


According to one Associated Press report, since 2015 Hyundai and its associated brand Kia have recalled over two million vehicles because of issues with engine failures and fires.  In April of 2019, the U. S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it had received over 3,000 complaints of engine fires and 103 injuries as a result.  That investigation revealed poorly machined crankcase bearings that caused metal shavings to clog oil passages, overheating the bearings and causing the engines to seize. 


The more recent recalls relate to an anti-lock brake computer board that can corrode and short out, causing a fire even if the car is turned off.  In a recall released last week, Hyundai warned owners of about 180,000 of its Tucson SUVs to park them outside, and if the anti-lock brake warning light comes on, to disconnect the battery and call Hyundai for a loaner car. 


There's good news and bad news here.


The good news is that Hyundai is not stonewalling or denying that there are any problems, as other auto companies have done from time to time when consumer complaints forced them to deal with a safety issue, such as rapid unintended acceleration in Toyotas.  While I would not be happy to be on the receiving end of one of Hyundai's recalls, at least I would know that the company is concerned and wants to do the right thing if a problem shows up.


On the other hand, one wonders about the quality control and engineering that is letting these things happen in the first place.  The overheated-bearing problem sounds like a manufacturing issue.  Automakers have been machining crankcase bearings since there were automobiles at all, and so the problem is most likely a defect in the way the manufacturing process was set up or executed.  Automobiles are probably the most complex type of consumer product to make, and so it's easy for a subtle issue such as metal chips that don't cause problems right away to escape notice. 


The anti-lock computer board problem is harder to understand.  One of the basic rules of electric power system design is to include protective circuitry—read "fuses"—in all power wiring, so that if any part of the system draws enough current to start a fire, a fuse somewhere will blow and interrupt the process before a fire gets a chance to start.


Of course, you can carry this only so far.  You have to have wires going from the battery to the fuses, and how do you protect those wires?  More fuses?  Typically, heavy-current pathways such as the one going from the battery to the starter are not fused.  But the starter operates only 0.0003% of the time the car is in use, roughly, so no fuse is needed in that circuit.  And maybe whoever designed the anti-lock brake system figured that hey, this system is rarely going to operate either, so it doesn't really need a fuse. 


Trouble is, corrosion doesn't punch a time clock, and it's rather surprising that cars only a year or two old have experienced enough corrosion on a supposedly well-protected board to short out and cause fires.  Besides the electrical issue, Hyundai needs to take into account that millions of cars in this country get exposed to salt spray from icy roads for months at a time.  Unless every seal is perfect, your electronics in any area that the salt can get to will be toast, perhaps literally if it catches fire.


Corrosion of a computer board was the reason I had to let go of my 2006 Honda Civic last summer.  An intermittent missing problem made me take it to the shop, where the tech called me aside and took me outside for some privacy.  I felt a little bit like a patient waiting to hear from his doctor about a cancer diagnosis.  He told me that the wires coming out of the main computer box were corroded green.  "We call it the green death.  There's nothing you can do but replace the whole thing, and that would cost more than the car's worth." I consoled myself with the fact that the vehicle ran fine for fourteen years, although in Texas we don't put salt on the roads, just sand on the few days a year there might be ice on the streets.


If corrosion is causing shorts in circuit boards of Hyundais that are only a year or two old, this does not bode well for the long-term viability of the vehicles.  Good automaking has advanced to the point where car owners expect to drive their vehicles for 200,000 or even 300,000 miles before they encounter a fatal problem like my Honda's green death, or other issue that sends the car to the scrapyard.  The auto industry as a whole is to be congratulated for resisting the temptation toward planned obsolescence that other industries such as consumer electronics have bought into wholesale. 


But it's not easy to make a machine as complicated as a car run without problems for hundreds of thousands of miles, and Hyundai, a relative newcomer to the automotive industry, may still have some lessons to learn.  Thankfully, few people have been injured or killed by the problems that have led to recent recalls, and let's hope that the firm can address such issues proactively in the future before they cause further problems to consumers.


Sources:  I referred to articles on the Canadian Broadcasting Company's website at, the Car and Driver website at, and Fortune's website at, besides the Wikipedia article "Hyundai Motor Company."

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