9% of Uber's fleet of Honda cars with fire flaw fixed, according to LTA's records

A passing cyclist looks at a Honda Vezel Hybrid vehicle on display outside a company showroom in Tokyo.
A passing cyclist looks at a Honda Vezel Hybrid vehicle on display outside a company showroom in Tokyo.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

SINGAPORE - Only 9 per cent of Uber's fleet of defective Honda Vezel cars have been fixed, according to the Land Transport Authority's records.

This contradicts Uber's earlier claim that all its affected Vezels - which could catch fire - had been repaired.

The authority added on Friday (Aug 4) that Uber had 1,200 of the affected cars, which were among some 11,000 Vezels imported here. Of the 11,000, 25 per cent have been rectified, an LTA spokesman said.

She said the figures were "based on last available information provided by importers and dealers".

And while it is not illegal for dealers to sell cars which are affected by a recall, the law requires them to inform potential buyers of any relevant recall.

"The buyers of such vehicles are also required to acknowledge that they have been informed of the defect and to undertake to send in their vehicle for rectification," the LTA spokesman added.

Asked repeatedly if it has replaced the defective parts in all 1,200 cars, Uber would only say it is "working closely with LTA and importers to ensure that LTA's records are up to date".

The authority was responding to queries arising from a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report that Uber had knowingly bought and rented out Vezels that were defective - a point that the American ride-hailing firm has not denied.

A recall for the faulty cars was initiated in April 2016, to fix an inadequate electrical capacitor in the car's stop-start mechanism. This mechanism switches off the engine when the car is waiting at traffic lights or kept stationary - to save fuel - and restarts it when the driver steps on the accelerator.

The Straits Times understands a large proportion of Uber's Honda Vezel fleet came from Singapore-based Sunrita, a parallel importer the ride-hailing firm is embroiled in a legal tussle over late delivery of cars.

According to the WSJ report, Uber's senior management came to know of the flaw and recommended that the vehicles be taken back from drivers to avoid "unnecessary risk".

But its Singapore general manager Warren Tseng said in an e-mail that the plan would cost the company about S$1.4 million in driver wages, rental fees and parking costs.

One affected car caught fire in January this year. No one was hurt.

When asked to comment, Uber spokesman Leigh Wong said: "As soon as we learned of a Honda Vezel... catching fire, we took swift action to fix the problem, in close coordination with Singapore's LTA as well as technical experts.

"But we acknowledge we could have done more - and we have done so. We've introduced robust protocols and hired three dedicated experts...to ensure we are fully responsive to safety recalls.

"Since the beginning of the year, we've proactively responded to six vehicle recalls and will continue to do so to protect the safety of everyone who uses Uber."

Mr Wong would not say what the six other recalls were, but redirected The Straits Times to an LTA web page, which listed 27 recalls in the past six months.

Honda's authorised agent Kah Motor said this is one reason why it imports only models which are deemed export-ready by Honda.

While its cars are also fitted with the stop-start feature, its flaw had been fixed before the vehicles left for Singapore. Hence, they are not part of the recall campaign.

The Vezel was Singapore's top selling car for 2015 and 2016. Last year, one out of every two cars parallel importers sold was a Vezel.

Some parallel importers have advised owners to deactivate the stop-start function while waiting for a replacement for the defective part. That was what Uber recommended its drivers do.

An Uber driver who drove a Vezel until recently said the firm was quick to take the car back to remove the part instead of replacing it "because there were insufficient parts".

The 24-year-old, who would only give his forum name Jyke Lim, said Uber did not mention any fire risk.

In a statement on Friday, the National Private Hire Vehicles Association urged Uber to do more and ensure that the safety of drivers and commuters are not compromised. It called on the start-up to "share more information on safety issues and risks highlighted in their internal report, which has not been made public".

Mr S. Thiagarajan, executive advisor of the association, said: "This will enable drivers to take appropriate action so that they can provide a safe ride for their passengers."

The association called on drivers to "proactively check if there are any mechanical faults with their cars, and send their cars back to the rental companies for further inspection if necessary".

It also urged car rental firms to provide replacement cars for drivers, or waive rental charges if they are not able to replace the car.