What's The Difference Between a Technical Service Bulletin vs a Recall?

Knowing the answer will keep you safer on the road.

2017 Chevrolet BoltChevrolet

Article QuickTakes:

When a manufacturer discovers a problem with a vehicle, there are two primary ways it communicates that issue to owners:

  • Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs)
  • Recalls

Each is designed to deal with automotive issues, but flow through different channels and address varying levels of severity.

Here are the main differences between TSBs and recalls, and how you can find out if there are any associated with your vehicle.

What Is A TSB?

A Technical Service Bulletin is information sent from a manufacturer to service centers that describes a specific problem with a particular vehicle. It typically also includes an explanation as to how to correct the issue in terms of repair, software reflash, or modification of the automobile.

TSBs can be accessed by both dealership technicians and independent mechanics through a database. If the vehicle affected is still under warranty, it's likely that any TSB-related repairs will be performed free of charge. It's also important to note that a TSB is not mandatory; you can choose to ignore the fix without any consequences (other than continuing to deal with the problem on your own).

What Is A Recall?

If a car, truck, or SUV has a problem that's serious enough to impact its safety on the road (or affecting its emissions control systems), then automakers escalate past issuing a TSB and proceed with a recall. Most recalls are voluntary and are initiated by the manufacturer itself. However, the federal government also has the power to order a recall through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) or the Department of Transportation if it receives enough complaints about an automotive safety issue and performs its own investigation.

Recall repairs are performed free of charge at a dealership service center. Unlike TSBs, they can't be overlooked. In serious cases, car companies will actually stop production of affected models until a solution is found, and they may even issue instructions to current owners asking them to stop driving (or avoid parking inside a garage, as was the case with the recent Chevrolet Bolt battery fire issue).

Manufacturers usually reach out to owners about recalls through the mail, or via their local dealerships. It's also possible to sign up for email updates about recalls affecting your specific vehicle via the NHTSA website. Car companies have 60 days to notify owners once the recall decision is made.

Where Can I Look Up Recalls And TSBs For My Vehicle?

You can't always count on your local dealer to stay on top of the TSBs associated with your vehicle, but there are several ways to keep yourself in the loop. Some car companies offer their own online look-up services, while the NHTSA and the Environmental Protection Agency each provide their own search tools, with all three requiring your Vehicle Identification Number. Both government sites also provide information about recalls in addition to TSBs.

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Benjamin Hunting
Benjamin Hunting is a writer and podcast host who contributes to a number of newspapers, automotive magazines, and online publications. More than a decade into his career, he enjoys keeping the shiny side up during track days and always has one too many classic vehicle projects partially disassembled in his garage at any given time. Remember, if it's not leaking, it's probably empty.