How Over-the-Air Updates Could Alter NHTSA Auto Recall Process

Recent changes in how much modern automobiles rely on computers and software may push the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to change its auto recall process. Currently, car manufacturers notify owners by mail and the owners must visit a local dealership to have the necessary repairs. Because of the role that software and computers play in many modern vehicles, though, more and more of these recalls require only over-the-air updates or other remote repairs.

What brought on this change?

Last May, a Tesla Model S crashed while it was operating on Autopilot. The NHTSA launched an investigation into the fatal accident, looking to identify the role the Autopilot system played in causing the wreck.

Both Tesla and the NHTSA found that the Autopilot system failed to spot a large white truck because of the bright sun and light blue sky behind and above it. To the system’s electronic “eyes,” there was no difference in the light colors in the intersection. The NHTSA blamed the incident on the Autopilot program itself, while Tesla claimed the driver should have been in control at the time of the crash.

Tesla, however, had already sent out an over-the-air software update to help prevent similar accidents. With the new update, the driver must have at least one hand on the wheel at all times or a warning will sound.

What could this mean for future recalls?

The NHTSA currently relies on a recall policy that is two decades old, and both the agency and any affected automakers must adhere to its strict notification and repair process during a recall. Sending printed notifications to all owners, scheduling appointments, and staffing dealerships for repairs are all extremely costly for car manufacturers.

Aside from the cost to manufacturers, in many cases, owners never receive a recall notice. This can occur if the current owner is not the original owner or if the owner changed addresses. Without knowledge of a recall, owners can drive around in an unsafe vehicle for months or even years.

As more and more vehicles rely on software to function properly, sending out over-the-air updates to keep this software running optimally has become commonplace. Owners may not even be aware of the issue with their software, and do not usually need to take any action to receive the update.

Car companies can repair many recalls because of software or automated systems in the same way. Remote fixes cost considerably less for the manufacturer, and do not inconvenience the vehicle owner. Yet NHTSA policy does not currently allow these types of fixes. For this reason, you can expect the NHTSA to review and update its recall policy in the coming months.

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