Volvo Recalls 79,000 Cars and SUVS for Defects in the Seat Belts They Invented

Michael GrossmanDecember 06, 2016 4 minutes

One would think that the company that invents a life-saving product found in millions of vehicles around the world that they would be the last ones to have issues with that product. If one had Volvo and the three-point safety belt in mind, one would be in for a surprise.

Whose Cars Have This Problem?

3-point harness

Volvo, the Swedish automaker, originally developed the three-point seat belt in the late 1950's. So groundbreaking and helpful was the device that Volvo made its patent available to other manufacturers in the name of the public good.

It's very likely that the safety belt in your own vehicle is a three-point arrangement; once engaged, it makes a "Y" formation and secures you in your seat at both hips and your shoulder. Short of the five- or six-point harnesses used in child safety seats and race cars, the three-point harness is the accepted industry standard, providing distributed restraint while preserving comfort.

According to investigations, the defect lies in a single pin used in the buckle assembly (in another source it is referred to as the seat buckle bolt). It appears that the connecting pin may not withstand the force of a crash without breaking, severely hampering the effectiveness of the belt itself.

Which Volvo Cars are Affected?

The company recently issued a voluntary recall (announced to the NHTSA on October 28) of approximately 74,000 2016-2017 models in the U.S. Several different models were reported possibly affected by the recall:

  • The S60, Volvo's entry-level luxury sedan model;
  • The S90, the new 2017 release in the same luxury sedan line;
  • The XC60, its entry-level cross-country (XC) SUV;
  • The XC90, the 2017 rendition of the SUV line;
  • The V60, its luxury station wagon model.

This list comprises a fairly large portion of Volvo's current market offerings, especially given that the recall affects specifically vehicles manufactured in 2016 (including its time-traveling "2017" releases). Another 5,000 vehicles will be recalled in Canada.

How Widespread is the Problem?

The total number of cars between the U.S. and Canada appears to be about 79,000 units. That may seem to be a relatively small number overall, but it's important to maintain a sense of the scale involved. As a luxury auto manufacturer, Volvo deals in comparatively low-volume sales figures; its total reported vehicle sales for 2016 (to date) are 72,595. Of those listed sales, the models in question account for 34,539 sales. Give or take a few thousand 2016 models sold in the latter half of 2015, and we're looking at approximately half of the vehicles moving off the Volvo lot being affected by this seatbelt damage. While the raw numbers in question may be fairly low, as a percentage of Volvo's total transactions half is more than enough to be considered a problem.

That percentage is further reduced per Volvo's assertions, in that many of these cars were too new to have entered consumer circulation yet, and are still in manufacturers' and dealers' unsold inventories. Per the stipulations of the recalls, both factories and dealers are subjecting these models to rigorous inspections before clearing them for sale.

What Can Be Done?

While no injuries have been reported from this defect, Volvo isn't going to let the situation expand into darker territory if they can possibly avoid it. Consumer notifications were released in waves, beginning the same day the NHTSA was alerted of the recall--October 28.

Owners of the affected vehicles are encouraged to take them to the nearest Volvo dealership for maintenance. The company alleges that the necessary repair is a simple part-swap, and should have minimal impact on a driver's time. While I get the inconvenience of having to go there at all, it pales in comparison to the alternative of a faulty seat belt when it's needed most. If you got that notice, please do as directed.

What Does All This Mean?

It is worth saying in an article that could be construed as a gentle hit-piece against Volvo that they tend to have a pretty stellar safety record. While their recall history is not spotless, most of the issues that bring their cars back to the shop aren't related to compromised or defective safety measures. In a time where the news is rife with tales of automakers' deliberate sleight-of-hand (*cough*GM*cough*Takata), Volvo hasn't really been touched. Taking a page or two from their public-relations book of transparency and customer involvement would likely be a good idea for the auto industry on the whole.

No one suggesting that Volvo is a "bad" company; quite the contrary, its behavior especially in the larger context of the auto industry is good. The thing is, the law isn't concerned with qualitative assessments. It's objective; it's factual. If someone is hurt by seat belt failure due to a faulty belt pin, the bad product used by the "good" company still demands recognition and quite possibly compensation.

For example, Volvo seems to have responded to this seat belt issue promptly and efficiently. The company notified the appropriate regulatory agency (the NHTSA), began inspecting every affected vehicle that still remained in its factories or on its dealers' lots, and actively reached out to car owners about the defect. The process ticked along with the precision of a Swedish timepiece!...wait.

As with many of these cases, though, I wonder how all this happened in the first place. How did the faulty pins make it all the way through quality-assurance procedures and crash tests without discovery? Per Volvo spokesman Jim Nichols, "[They] expect very few will need any repair." This suggests a bad batch may have snuck through during manufacturing, and by responding with both rigorous inspections and replacements, the company may reduce or even eliminate the possibility of injury and/or casualty from the defect.

One auto journal that reported on this recall suggests that "[It] proves we're all human and nobody's perfect." I get that an auto news reporter may want to be careful about condemning automakers, I'm not sure that it's okay to serve up bromides about a nationwide safety recall. This particular defect might pass without making waves, and I'll keep my fingers, toes, and eyes crossed that it does precisely that. Swap the pin and drive away, safe and sound. But the fact is that pin has created a potentially-lethal situation, and that merits at least a wagged finger instead of shrugged shoulders. Volvo invented this technology and was the first to incorporate it, and many motorists have cause for gratitude whether they know that history or not. It behooves the (Chinese-owned) Swedish manufacturer to maintain the quality control and safety innovation for which it is acclaimed.