General Motors' release of a “technical service bulletin” in 2005, alerting dealers to a potential ignition swtich problem that now is being blamed for 12 deaths in some GM cars, underscores the value of the bulletins, even for consumers. (Download a full-size JPEG of the TSB shown right.)
Becoming familiar with the bulletins can help you save money by alerting you to problems with a car you own or plan to buy. In limited cases, they also can provide an early hint of a potential safety problem or expose the risk of an expensive problem. (See: "Free Engine Replacement for 2006-2009 Honda Civics.")
Automakers use the bulletins to inform dealers about the many different issues that can emerge after a vehicle leaves the factory. A particular model may generate dozens of service bulletins over its lifetime.
Bulletins focus on nonsafety-related defects that might affect a vehicle’s performance or longevity, such as parts that fail prematurely or don’t operate the way they’re meant to.
They advise service technicians about how to diagnose and repair a problem, specifying tools, techniques, and the required parts. Bulletins also can alert dealers to other issues, such as changes in recommended tire pressure or lubricants, repair procedures, and maintenance requirements. Technical service bulletins are not recalls. And while they don't necessarily entitle customers to free repairs, some bulletins indicate that manufacturer is extending warranty coverage for a specific issue.
Just because a bulletin mentions a potential problem with your model, that doesn't mean the issue necessarily will develop in your particular vehicle. Often a specific glitch shows up on only a specified portion of the production run, on vehicles driven in certain parts of the country, or under certain conditions.
Depending on the issue, some bulletins may be difficult to understand for anyone unfamiliar with car repair; others are fairly straightforward.
In the GM case, the bulletin issued in 2005 and revised in 2006 warned dealers about the potential for drivers to inadvertently turn off the ignition in seven models, ranging in some cases from 2003 to 2007. The bulletin said the problem was most likely to occur with short drivers and those with large or heavy key chains. It provided a part number for a replacement key ring and insert that engineers had developed to address the problem. GM did not issue a safety recall. (See: "What to Do if Your Engine Dies When You're Driving.")
Now, nine years later and with a dozen deaths attributed to the problem, GM is recalling 2.5 million vehicles, and its chief executive officer, Mary Barra, has apologized, saying that “something went wrong with this process, and terrible things happened.” Congress, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and, reportedly, the Justice Department are investigating.