Cost of not checking the documentation

September 22, 2009


Back in July it was reported that Volkswagon had to do a vehicle recall for nearly 20,000 vehicles sold in the US, which had been sold with an owner’s manual that did not contain some required information.

According to http://www.autoblog.com/2009/07/07/volkswagen-routan-recalled-for-i-magic-8-ball-shake-i/ in the words of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:

The owner’s manual was printed without the required information explaining that no objects should be placed over the or near the airbag on the instrument panel. Any such objects could cause injury to the vehicle’s occupants in the event of a crash severe enough to cause the airbag to inflate.

The fix is (I’ve removed the almost unreadable all upper case in the original [Aside: Why are these legal notices always in upper case, the most unreadable of all cases?]):

Dealers will send an owner’s manual insert containing the required air bag information for owner installation or dealers will install in the event the owner prefers assistance from the dealer.

What did this little slip-up cost VW? Possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars, I expect, including these time and costs (I’m sure there are more):

  • notify or respond to the relevant authorities (with all the internal legal department frenzy and crisis meetings when the issue was first identified)
  • write and edit the press release and get it checked by Legal and the relevant authorities
  • write and edit the insert and get it checked by Legal and the relevant authorities
  • print the insert
  • write a cover letter to all dealers
  • mail out the insert to dealers
  • assigning someone to take the calls from angry and confused dealers.

At the dealer end, there are these costs as a minimum:

  • identify which customers purchased that vehicle model
  • notify these customers
  • mailing out the insert (or ‘installing’ it for them!)
  • following up to make sure everyone who purchased one of these vehicles has been dealt with, and chasing up those who haven’t responded or been contacted
  • assigning someone to take the calls from angry and confused customers.

So, how could have VW prevented this loss of time and money in the first place? By having a technical documentation department that had writers’ checklists of all information required for a vehicle model’s manual, and editors in that department who made sure all required information was included, long before the documentation was ‘signed off’. Someone at VW had to sign off the documentation — this information was missed at all steps of the process. (They do *have* a tech doc department don’t they? or have they laid off staff as a result of the current economic situation? False economy…)

If it was caught at the beginning — in the writing and editing stage — there would have been no need for VW to spend all this money on fixing it. The salary of a competent tech writer/editor is a lot less than the cost of vehicle recall.

[Links last checked July 2009]


  1. Good article, Rhonda. 2 things.
    1) I love that “dealers will install [a few change-pages] in the event the owner prefers assistance”. Now that’s service!

    2) Many years ago I wrote software installation instructions for in-house mainframe administrators. For one release I totally forgot a whole section. It was reviewed by the pubs and development teams. It went through all testing cycles. No one noticed.

  2. The missing text says something like: “If you put something on the airbag cover and the airbag deploys, it could kill you.” (How ironic if somebody stuck a St. Christopher image on the dash airbag cover.)

    I bought a Routan 8/22/09. Don’t know if my manual has been corrected. I usually skip over the airbag and seat belt section.

    Two groups handled the manual, so I suspect nobody was responsible. Volkswagen changed the language in a few sections referring to the modifications it made to the Routan. The rest is a Chrysler manual. (I’ve owned 2 Chrysler Corp. mini-vans in the last 10 years. I swear some of the wording hasn’t changed in that time.)

    Since the airbag section is boilerplate, I wonder if the Chrysler Town & Country/Dodge Grand Caravan has the notice included. I can picture some underlings at Chrysler sniggering. “We just screwed Volkswagen. We caught it in ours, but we ‘forgot’ to tell them” snigger, snigger.

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