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Let's Talk About Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs)

How these simple documents can unlock information about your car.

Your car is a complex machine that will develop clunks, bangs, and strange smells over time. Car problems are simply inevitable. And while it may not feel like it, automakers are keeping a watchful eye on problem trends in their fleet.

When enough complaints or warranty claims pile up, automakers need to come up with a solution.

If the problem is safety-related they’re supposed to issue a recall. But for things like squeaks and busted side mirrors, they need a way to tell their dealerships how to repair them.

A Technical Service Bulletin (TSB) is a set of recommended repair procedures, issued by an automaker, on how to address a specific problem.

Think of it like those instructions that come with Ikea furniture, except more specific and without any allen wrenches.


How Does a TSB Differ from a Recall?

A TSB differs from a recall in multiple ways:

  1. Recalls are only issued when there’s a safety defect. There’s debate over what qualifies as a safety defect, but more often than not if occupants in the car are put at risk there will be a recall. A TSB, meanwhile, can be about anything. Like that annoying sun visor that you had to duct tape to the ceiling to stop it from falling down after every pot hole.
  2. If your car is out of warranty, you’ll probably pay full price for TSB repairs. By law, automakers need to reimburse their dealerships for the costs incurred during a recall. The same can’t be said about TSBs. In addition, even some in-warranty repairs outlined by a TSB have time limits.
  3. Unlike recalls, automakers aren’t required to notify owners about TSBs. TSBs are sent to dealerships and logged with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), but automakers are under no obligation to notify owners. That leads us to the next problem…

How Can I See the TSBs Issued For My Car?

An informed consumer is able to make smarter decisions about their car. So you’d think technical service bulletins would be easy to access. After all, if your power window switch isn’t working wouldn’t it be nice to know if the automaker already knows about it and has a fix?

Unfortunately for the longest time it just wasn’t that simple.

TSBs are straight forward documents — they have a subject, a list of affected vehicles, part numbers, tool listing and repair procedures. But they weren’t free to consumers. All we got were some lousy summaries.

What is a TSB Summary?

When an automaker issues a TSB to its dealers, they have to notify the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

However, NHTSA only stored a tiny bit of cryptic information about the TSB. Take a look at one TSB summary for the 2011 Honda CR-V under ENGINE:

TSB #AER12040B NHTSA ID #10043934 Summary: AMERICAN HONDA: SEE DOCUEMENT SEARCH BUTTON FOR OWNER LETTER. HEAD COVER GASKET LEAKS. TO FULLY UNDERSTAND THE CAUSE OF THIS OCCURRENCE, AHM WOULD LIKE TO COLLECT PERTINENT INFORMATION AND/OR INSPECT THE VEHICLE PRIOR TO ATTEMPTING REP

OK, a few things:

  1. Huh?
  2. Who is AHM and what information is he collecting?
  3. They couldn’t even be bothered to spell ‘document’ right?
  4. OK, there is a known problem with head cover gasket leaks, but now what?

A Huge Win For Car Owners

On February 9th, 2016, the Center for Auto Safety (CAS) sued the Department of Transportation over violations of federal law for auto safety.

Today the Center for Auto Safety filed suit against DOT Secretary Foxx to force the Secretary to do what the law so clearly requires. This is yet another example of where voluntary and cooperative action by the auto industry so praised by Secretary Foxx fails.” - CAS Executive Director Clarence Ditlow

The Department of Transportation claimed posting the full TSBs is a copyright violation, but that’s not what Johnny Law says.

The 2012 Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21) says the Secretary of Transportation is supposed to:

“make available on a publicly accessible Internet website, a true or representative copy of each communication to the manufacturer’s dealers or to owners or purchasers of a motor vehicle or replacement equipment produced by the manufacturer about a defect or noncompliance with a motor vehicle safety standard prescribed under this chapter in a vehicle or equipment that is sold or serviced.”

In no way, shape, or ugly form are TSB summaries a “true representative copy” of the original document.

Government Agrees to Post All Automaker Defect Info

Are you ready for some very good (acronym-heavy) news?

The Department of Transportation (DOT) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently agreed to publicly post all vehicle technical service bulletins (TSB) following the lawsuit from the Center for Auto Safety (CAS).

Whew.

NHTSA will also publicly post on its Web site the manufacturers’ indexes to their communications as they are received.

For the first time, consumers will be able to search for car problems that may not legally be defined as causing a risk to safety. CAS says the new measures will save consumers money on repairs for problems covered by a previously-hidden TSB, not to mention save lives.

You’ll soon know everything wrong with your car. That’s wonderful (and a bit scary).

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