Technical Service Bulletin: Consumers need fuller access to TSBs

Consumer Reports News: April 06, 2010 06:08 AM

One problem for drivers brought to light by the Toyota crisis is the difficulty consumers may have accessing Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs) for their own cars.
TSBs are technical instructions that automakers provide to dealerships to fix certain problems in cars already sold. They represent a first stop on the road to what may become a more general service campaign or a safety recall.

To understand the difference between a recall, TSB, and Customer Service Campaign, here is a quick overview:
  • Recalls are a response to safety defects identified by the automaker or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or both. Once a recall is initiated, NHTSA is notified and a letter is sent to vehicle owners asking them to bring their cars in to their local dealership for a free repair or upgrade.
  • TSBs are notices sent just to car dealers informing them of a fix or a new service procedure for a specific problem. The problem typically isn't safety related. Automakers are required to notify NHTSA of TSBs, but they don't notify car owners. If you bring your car into a dealership for a problem covered by a TSB, the dealer should perform the work at no charge while the vehicle is under warranty. If you bring your car to a dealership, ask about TSBs applying to your car. If you have the symptoms mentioned in a TSB, ask to get the remedial work done free. Independent mechanics may also receive TSBs through a private subscription service. If it's a problem the automaker has agreed to remedy as warranty work, which the TSB will note, you may have to go to a franchised dealer.
  • Customer Service Campaigns unlike recalls, these campaigns are not mandatory, meaning that they don't conform to notification rules. Customers are notified that a dealer will make a fix to their car for free, but the problem is not considered to be a safety defect requiring a recall. These are essentially problems that the manufacturer fixes to keep the customers happy.
Consumers can look up TSBs on their own cars on NHTSA's Web site. But all that is published there is a summary of the TSB.

Some summaries are more informative than others. This one, on a 2008 Volkswagen Jetta, for example, lists the problem to be corrected, but not what the fix involves without paying for the complete text:
That basically means the "check engine" light (Malfunction Indicator Lamp) is on. The communication is from the carmaker to dealer service personnel, who have a diagnostic code reader to tell if the reason involves one of these two codes.

Consumers can subscribe to TSB feeds for their own cars, but it may not be cost effective. They are available directly from manufacturers or through private service providers such as and Some dealers may give you copies of TSBs for your car, if you ask.

Consumers who've spotted a TSB on NHTSA's Web site can also try calling their local service department and asking what it means.

According to Clarence Ditlow, Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety, and a member of the board of Consumers Union, the parent of Consumer Reports, Toyota charges $400 for an annual subscription to its TSBs, or $15 for a two-day subscription. If you subscribed for two days every quarter to check for updates, it would cost you $60 a year.

Ditlow says he has prodded NHTSA to make the full text of TSBs public, and says the response has been that they automakers own the copyrights to TSBs, so the agency doesn't have the right to publish them.

The federal Right to Repair Act, as well as several pending state laws, would require complete TSBs to be published on government Web sites. But none of those laws has passed. 

As Congress looks at the NHTSA's reauthorization and budget in light of the Toyota unintended acceleration cases, we think making TSBs public is something lawmakers should consider.

Search for TSBs on your car.

Eric Evarts

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