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Your car, still under warranty, has a gremlin.
The problem seems to happen often when you drive. But your dealer's service department can't find it, so the technicians can't fix it. You rue the day you bought this piece of junk and vow never to buy another of the same brand.
Wait. You might have an issue that, indeed, is hard to replicate but is real. It might be discussed in a technical service bulletin (TSB), which also can explain how to fix the problem.
Once the mysterious province of auto technicians and hard-core auto buffs, TSBs no longer are quite so secret — happily so, because these disclosures to auto mechanics could save you aggravation and, possibly, money.
As of mid-January, the National Highway Traffic Administration (NHTSA) now includes these bulletins, also known as manufacturer communications, free on its website, thanks to a lawsuit filed nearly four years earlier by the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group based in Washington. Congress had passed a law in 2012 requiring the federal government to post all of this information online, but it wasn't happening consistently.
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An automaker will send one of these bulletins to its dealers to alert them to a common problem with a certain model and tell them how to fix it. A technical service bulletin is not a recall. Recalls apply only to safety- or emissions-related problems.
Federal law also requires that owners be notified of recalls and that the vehicles be fixed free as soon as possible. Recalls have no expiration date.
TSBs aren't recalls, can fly under radar
Vehicle manufacturers won't seek you out when they issue a TSB. If you're having trouble finding your specific issue in the government database, you can try the way owners in the know long have found such bulletins: an internet search.
"Google is your friend,” says Dave Cappert, a technical specialist at the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence in Leesburg, Virginia. The organization tests and certifies that auto technicians are proficient in the areas cited on their certificates.
In search of service bulletins
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1. Go to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website. Choose Recalls | Vehicle if you're on the home page.
2. Enter the year, make and model of your car, truck or van. Don't get too specific. Searching for a 2019 Ford Edge ST yields nothing, but eliminate the “ST” designation and you get 66 manufacturer communications, sorted into 15 categories.
3. Note exactly when your vehicle was made, which you can find from a sticker on the driver's door frame or door edge. You'll need that because some technical service bulletins are extremely specific on the dates of manufacture they cover.
Some sites will show you only the summary that's at the top of a TSB, while the government website and others will provide the entire bulletin. Some charge for it; NHTSA does not. Often you can learn from just the summary whether the problem affects you and whether a remedy is available.
Many dealership service departments and nondealer shops are open during the coronavirus pandemic. A lot of people — health care workers, for example — still need to get to work, and many of them drive.
Needs aside, “cars don't decide to break when it's convenient,” says Alain Nana-Sinkam, vice president of strategic initiatives at the TrueCar vehicle shopping service.
You might want to put up with your car's glitch until the pandemic threat eases. If you do decide to act now, be sure the shop sanitizes your car after the work, so you don't hop into a coronavirus incubator when you fetch your newly fixed machine.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can remain on some surfaces for several days, according to results of a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine and cited by the National Institutes of Health in mid-March.
In a perfect world — or even an imperfect one without the threat of COVID-19 — a good service shop would check your vehicle against a list of TSBs when you brought it in, just as it would for recalls.
But when you book the service appointment, you also can say something like, “The transmission is shifting roughly and clunking. Can you check for a bulletin on that and fix it while it's in the shop, please?"
It's OK to be more precise and say you found a service bulletin that seems relevant. Is it the latest and most appropriate one and has the remedy been applied yet?
Not all problems reported in these service bulletins have immediate solutions. For example, a July 2019 TSB for the 2019 Ford Edge notes that “some 2019 Edge/(Lincoln) Nautilus vehicles … may exhibit harsh engagements when shifting from PARK to REVERSE, PARK to DRIVE and or REVERSE to DRIVE. These harsh engagements may result in an engagement clunk from the driveline. Do not attempt any repairs at this time. Engineering is investigating.”
A November follow-up bulletin specified a fix. Technicians were to reprogram the electronic module that controls the automatic transmission.
NHTSA data also show issues brewing that haven't generated a full-fledged bulletin. One 2019 manufacturer communication covering 2018 to 2020 models of the Toyota Camry — the best-selling car in the United States — as well as the Avalon large sedan, Sienna minivan and Highlander and RAV4 SUVs notes that some automatic transmissions were leaking but provided no remedy.
"This issue is currently under investigation,” according to a Jan. 27 notice that Toyota prefers calling a Tech Tip. That's the most recent communication about the issue in the NHTSA database as of late April.
Not all service bulletin fixes are free
Because a technical service bulletin isn't a recall, the remedy isn't necessarily free. You can expect to pay nothing if your car is under warranty and the service technician can verify that your vehicle has the problem described in the TSB. But if you don't ask for the fix until after the warranty expires, you may be charged.
So while your warranty is in effect, don't ignore the glitches and gremlins that annoy you but that you might be embarrassed to mention to a service manager. Instead, go fishing for a technical service bulletin that sounds as if it applies and bring it up. Otherwise, warm up your wallet.
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If you are a regular customer and on good terms with the shop, you might get a discount after the warranty ends. It never hurts to ask.
If a TSB concerns an issue so troublesome or widespread to become a “campaign” or “service action,” you will receive free fixes up to the mileage specified. So don't quit asking for a remedy just because your car is beyond its warranty.
"Occasionally, a problem covered by a TSB can turn into what automakers call a ‘service campaign,’ ‘service action,’ ‘customer service campaign,’ or ‘warranty extension,’ “ Consumer Reports says. “That means the automaker has agreed to cover the cost to repair a specific problem, sometimes in response to a class-action lawsuit or the risk of litigation but sometimes on its own.”
Some glitches do become recalls
If a glitch turns into a safety or emissions issue, such as Volkswagen's out-of-specification anti-pollution controls on diesel engines or the 63 million faulty Takata airbags affecting more than a dozen automakers, it becomes a recall and will be free to you.
Save all the paperwork from your shop to show that the car has been maintained. The recordkeeping can help your case if you want the work done free, or cheaply, after the warranty expires or if a problem escalates into a campaign.
Keep in mind you don't have to have a dealership perform all of your service. Even if the car's under warranty, you still can have an independent service shop change oil, check fluids and belts and perform other maintenance that is part of the plan laid out in your owner's manual — as long as you have everything done literally by the book.