Ever wonder how all those functions in your steering wheel work? It's thanks to the clock spring. The radio volume buttons, cruise control, airbags, and horn all depend on the clock spring to communicate their electrical signals to and from the car's computers.
The clock spring is mounted between the steering wheel and steering column. It's called a clock spring because it rotates (like a clock!) as you turn the steering wheel. Inside a bundle of small wires is spiraled around a center point, and those are wrapped freely in both directions.
If it wasn't for the clock spring all those wires would tear apart as you turned the wheel back and forth.
Clock Spring Problems ∞
If you get an airbag warning light it could be a number of things. But if you get an airbag warning light and you're having problems with the buttons on your steering wheel? Or the horn doesn't work reliably? It's most likely due to a clock spring problem.
That's something VW owners are very familiar with.
How clock springs typically fail ∞
Most clock springs are supposed to be good for the life of the vehicle, but there are certain units where the wires become brittle and break over time. Another common fail point is with overzealous technicians who damage the clock spring or reinstall it improperly after removing the steering wheel for service.
What happens with a faulty clock spring ∞
If the clock spring stops working, the communication between your steering wheel and the car's computers stop working too.
A faulty clock spring will disable the steering wheel airbag, prevent the horn from working, and disable access to steering wheel mounted button features like radio controls and cruise control.
Volkswagen's Clock Spring Problems ∞
Volkswagen has been having clock spring issues for quite some time. Both with failure of the parts themselves and how the automaker has implemented recalls to "fix" them.
The first investigation ∞
Back in March 2015 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened an investigation into clock spring failures in the 2012 Passat and CC.
Owners had been complaining about strange noises from the steering column, non-response steering wheel buttons, and the airbag warning light turning on. It was the prospect of the driver-side airbag failing that caught the attention of the safety agency.
The problems were attributed to debris contaminating the inner workings of the steering wheel clock spring. Something as simple as strands of hair were enough to displace guide loops inside the spring, leading to excess tension and the eventual ripping of a vital ribbon cable.
The first recall ∞
The investigation eventually forced Volkswagen to issue a recall in August of 2015, even though the automaker admitted they didn't know how to fix the problem.
The scope of the recall was much wider than the original investigation and covered the following vehicles:
- 2010-2014 CC
- 2010-2013 Eos
- 2011-2014 Golf
- 2011-2014 GTI
- 2010-2013 Jetta
- 2011-2013 Jetta Sportwagen
- 2010-2014 Passat
- 2010-2014 Tiguan
The recall gets investigated ∞
Owners continued to have problems with their steering wheel buttons, airbags, and horn long after getting their clock springs repaired as part of VW's recall. At least 154 clock-spring related complaints were filed to NHTSA following the recall.
In November 2017 the agency opened an investigation, known as a recall query, into the validity of Volkswagen's repairs in 416,000 vehicles.
During the investigation Volkswagen reported they had also received roughly 700 clock spring complaints about the recalled vehicles.
The investigation balooned to 1.2 million vehicles by the following year.