High-tech cars take the pain out of recalls, but there’s a catch

Instead, Tesla released an updated version of its software, much like how companies like Apple released newer versions of their operating systems on an iPhone. This is a growing trend in the automotive industry. And it’s the one that experts say has huge potential benefits, but is not without dangers.

A single traditional recall could cripple any automaker financially. Automakers must pay for parts and labor to complete the repairs. General Motors, for example, spent $4.1 billion on recalls in 2015 for issues like faulty ignition switches.

But Tesla handled its recalls without most of the big expense associated with traditional recalls. Tesla’s approach has also benefited consumers, who typically need to have their vehicles serviced.

Tesla addressed its most recent safety recalls with over-the-air software updates, which over-the-air software updates like a smartphone app update, making them less burdensome for the automaker and consumers. The mainstream auto industry sees over-the-air updates as a convenient way to deal with certain recalls, but Tesla has been the most aggressive in their use.

Cars, especially electric vehicles, are increasingly reliant on computers to operate, so software updates are likely to be increasingly relevant to them.

“Cars are now much more software than hardware. That’s why a chip shortage is freezing the industry,” Don Slavik, an automotive product liability attorney, told CNN Business.

Quick software fixes

In recalls where cars need to be serviced, many drivers never get their vehicles repaired, leaving unsafe cars and trucks on the roads.

About 75% of recalls are resolved, according to Sean Kane, founder of research organization Safety Research & Strategies.

“Rates go down as cars age, so there are benefits to updating software over-the-air,” Kane said.

By contrast, many Tesla updates arrive overnight while cars are parked with their owners. There is no hassle of taking a vehicle to service and completion rates are high. Tesla reported last year that 100% of its vehicles with unexpected emergency braking issues were resolved within two months of notifying owners. An over-the-air software update was available to fix the issue. By comparison, a recall due to improperly fastened seat belts in some Model S vehicles, which required owners to visit a Tesla service center, was only resolved on 59% of vehicles six months later. .

“Increasing recall completion rates remains a priority for our members and we continue to explore new approaches to modernize the process and improve safety and convenience for consumers,” said John Bozzella, CEO of the ‘Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents major automakers outside of Tesla, told CNN Business.

Automakers Mercedes-Benz and General Motors have released over-the-air updates in the past and both companies say they will increasingly consider using them in the future where appropriate and possible. .

Last year, Mercedes-Benz issued a recall via an over-the-air update to fix a flaw in its system that could prevent people from calling emergency services via some of its vehicles. Mercedes-Benz spokeswoman Anne McGregor said the company was encouraged by the technology’s potential.
General Motors released an over-the-air software update in 2020 to limit Chevrolet Corvette speeds when the hood is not fully closed to prevent it from opening and increasing the risk of a crash. It was received by 94% of vehicles 16 months after the recall was initiated.
Next year, it will deploy a new software platform in its vehicles. GM spokesman Chris Bonelli says there will be even more features and frequent updates.

When “over-the-air” fails

But while the ease of implementing live reminders makes them appealing, there are downsides as well.

According to experts, the ease of fixing a car’s software can encourage automakers to offer features that are rough and may not have been adequately tested.

Last October, Tesla recalled its “full self-driving” software because the automatic emergency braking feature unexpectedly activated, which could increase the risk of a rear-end collision. It recalled its “complete self-driving” software again in February, as it was programmed to slowly cycle through stop signs in some cases.

“We’re getting into the realm where humans are being used as beta testers and guinea pigs, and that’s not somewhere we want to be,” Michael Brooks, chief counsel at the Center for Auto Safety, told CNN Business.

Tesla said in the recalls it was not aware of any related crashes or injuries, and the company did not respond to a request for comment.

Brooks pointed to Tesla’s February safety recall of its Boombox feature, which allows people to play the sounds of their choice through the vehicle’s external speaker, which is typically used for its pedestrian warning system. US motor vehicle regulations require hybrid and electric vehicles to emit low noise at low speeds because they are so naturally quiet that they can be dangerous to pedestrians and cyclists. Tesla said in its Boombox recall that the feature could interfere with the effectiveness of the pedestrian warning system.

“Fun police made us do it (sigh)”, Musk tweeted after the reminder.

Tesla said it would release an over-the-air software update to disable the Boombox feature when the car is in drive, neutral or reverse mode.

Most of Tesla’s 12 recalls in 2021 required a Tesla technician to provide a practical solution, such as issues with a seatbelt or airbag. Auto-reminder experts expect software updates to become much more common. They are particularly attractive as an alternative to fixing a hardware or mechanical problem.

In 2017, Mercedes-Benz modified the software on the 2015 and 2016 C63 AMG performance coupe and sedan to prevent a part from breaking under hard acceleration on wet roads. Chrysler updated the software in some Ram pickups in 2018 to prevent them from rolling away unintentionally. Ford in 2018 updated the software in its Focus sedan to prevent engine stalls.

Kane warned that a downside of software patches is that they can cause automakers to perform a short-term software fix and push back underlying issues, including when a vehicle is out of warranty.

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