When Bill Cowden brought his 2016 Toyota Tacoma into the local dealership for a routine service recently, he expected to be back on the road in just a few hours. Instead, he might not drive it again for two months.
Toyota recalled the truck in April to fix a potential oil leak in the rear differential, but several weeks later there was no timetable for the repairs to be finished.
“They issued the recall before they even had the procedure and the parts available to fix it,” said Cowden of Oxnard, Calif.
His truck remains in the service department at nearby Ventura Toyota. The dealership loaned Cowden a Camry sedan for transportation in the meantime.
Toyota is concerned that the rear differential on some 228,000 model year 2016 and 2017 Tacomas could seize, creating a situation where the driver loses control of the truck and crashes.
While it’s not uncommon for a lack of parts to delay repairs on recalled vehicles, Toyota’s move to sequester the trucks until they can be fixed is unusual.
General Motors, for example, did not ground 2.6 million Chevrolet Cobalts and other small cars — mostly from the 2003 to 2007 model — that were equipped with a faulty ignition switch that was eventually linked to causing crashes responsible for at least 124 deaths and 275 injuries.
The GM recall, a fatal flaw with Takata air bags in Honda and other vehicles and earlier Toyota problems with floor mats and sticky gas pedals, have prompted automakers to recall more vehicles than ever.
The industry called back 53 million vehicles for repairs in 2016, a record. Last year, automakers issued 927 recalls, a 6.7 percent increase compared with 2015.
The large number of recalls creates a backlog of replacement parts that need to be produced, leading to long delays as owners wait for repairs, said Dave Sullivan, manager of product analysis at the AutoPacific consulting firm.
Suppliers are instructed to build new production parts first, and many plants are operating at full capacity in order to bring those models to dealer lots, Sullivan said. When a recall hits, and replacement parts are ordered, that work needs to be conducted in the after-hours. Dealerships, and owners, are left with sitting trucks.
“Imagine if a dealer in L.A. suddenly had 2,000 Tacomas show up for the same recall,” he said. “There would be a huge issue with turning those around.”
Automakers have become extremely cautious when it comes to safety, and Toyota isn’t the only one, Sullivan said. Ford has also issued numerous recalls that forced backlogs at dealer service departments.
Ford issued six recalls alone in March of 2017, three of which included the phrase “Remedy parts are currently unavailable.”
There are currently two open recalls for the 2017 Ford F-150, four for the F-250 and three for the F-350 pickup trucks, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“Now automakers are so trigger happy to issue [recalls] that people are overwhelmed,” Sullivan said.
Cowden, a field service engineer, needs his Tacoma to carry tools during long work assignments.
“It’s kind of why I bought the vehicle,” he said. “It was a good fit for what I do, with comfort and economy.”
So far, only a small percentage of 2016-17 Tacomas have been found to have leaking differentials, said Victor Vanov, spokesman for Toyota.
The automaker has not even sent out notices to owners yet – those will be delivered in mid-June. But the company deemed the issue serious enough to try and keep troubled Tacomas off the road.
“In the interest of their safety, customers have been asked to leave their Tacoma at the dealership until replacement parts arrive,” Vanov said.
Pickup owners are left in a pinch, since many rely on their vehicles for their livelihood.
Dorsey Clark, a plumber in Vacaville, Calif., brought his 2016 Tacoma in for a 15,000-mile service in May. The dealership found a differential leak and said they would need to keep the truck for up to two months.
“I thought it was ridiculous,” Clark said. “I mean, it’s a gasket.”
Clark needs his truck to travel to work sites. On top of that, he was about to embark on a personal road trip to Nebraska a few days later. Instead of leaving the Tacoma with his dealer, Clark tightened the bolts and topped off the rear differential oil himself. He drove to Nebraska and back with no problems.
“I’m sure they want me to bring it back, but why?” he said.
Despite the personal inconvenience, Tacoma owners Cowden and Clark are sympathetic to Toyota’s decision. Both expressed appreciation that the automaker is concerned about safety, and commended their respective dealerships.
“It’s a fact of life,” Cowden said. “There’s going to be defects here and there.”
Cowden was pleased when Ventura Toyota offered to ship his truck to wherever he’s working, free of charge, when it’s finished.
But he had another concern. He needed to make a scheduled work trip to Iowa, and the Camry wouldn’t cut it.
So, the dealer arranged for a long-term vehicle from a local rental agency.
“Ironically, it’s a Nissan pickup,” he said. “I’ll get a chance to sample some of their competitor’s equipment.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said 2015 was the record year for recalls and misstated the number of vehicles called back by automakers.