Today: Technical Service Bulletins, explained.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jan 01, 2010

Dear Tom and Ray:

I've heard you refer to "bulletins" ("maybe there's a bulletin on it") in addressing repair problems. My question is this: If there is, in fact, a bulletin out on a repair, does that mean the dealership cannot (or ought not) charge full price for the repair? My Saturn wagon just had a transmission pressure-control solenoid replaced, to the tune of $800. As I was writing out the check, I noticed a bulletin that the technician had clipped to the bill, and I asked the serviceman if I could see it. He was hesitant, especially when I asked him for a copy of it. Is the bulletin just an aid for the technician to follow, or is it a correction of a defect, and therefore something that should be covered under warranty?

-- Bill

RAY: Good question, Bill. The bulletins we refer to are Technical Service Bulletins, also known as TSBs. They really just contain advice from the company to the mechanics who fix their cars.

TOM: For instance, a number of owners of older Honda CR-Vs started complaining about a strange howling noise underneath their cars when they made sharp turns. Someone, somewhere on the planet, figured out that the problem was caused by worn-out fluid in the center differential.

RAY: When Honda was convinced that it understood the problem and had a solution (it involved draining and replacing the differential fluid), it issued a TSB, which is the best way to make sure all Honda service people know about it.

TOM: Honda sends the TSBs directly to its dealerships. And other companies -- namely, Mitchell and AllData -- supply the TSBs to subscribing independent shops.

RAY: That way, when Joe Blowski brings his groaning CR-V into his dealer in East Armpit, the guy doesn't have to scratch his head, hide in the bathroom for a couple of hours and then start from square one.

TOM: Right. And instead of spending hours diagnosing (or misdiagnosing) the problem, he can start by checking for TSBs on howling noises, and bingo! He finds what he's looking for, and saves the customer time and money.

RAY: Whether customer Joe Blowski has to pay for the repair is a separate issue. That's determined by how old the car is, whether it's still under warranty and whether the dealer or manufacturer decides to earn good will by absorbing the cost (in other words, in most cases, dream on!).

TOM: You make a reasonable argument that the fact that a problem is known and widespread enough for a TSB indicates that it resulted from a design or manufacturing defect. But manufacturers are not obligated to fix such defects for free unless they affect the safety of the vehicle, as determined by NHTSA (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration). When that happens, it's called a "recall." Recall repairs are done for free.

RAY: But a TSB just indicates that there's a known mechanical problem with a known solution. It's there to facilitate repairs. It's not a coupon for a free repair.

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