Tesla is recalling nearly 300,000 vehicles sold in China following reports that some Model 3 sedans and Model Y SUVs can experience surges of unintended acceleration triggered by faulty software in their driver assistance systems.
But rather than requiring owners to bring their vehicles back to the company’s showrooms, Tesla will update the suspect software remotely using smartphone-style over-the-air, or OTA, updates. And it’s not alone. General Motors plans to use OTA technology to repair more than 280,000 late-model sedans and SUVs that may experience malfunctions with their airbag warning lights. Mercedes-Benz, meanwhile, remotely repaired 1.3 million of its own vehicles earlier this year.
Over-the-air updates “are going to become pretty much universal over the next five years,” according to Sam Abuelsamid, the principal auto analyst with Guidehouse Insights. And the payoff, he added, is likely to be enormous for both carmakers and car buyers. Safety advocates and regulators will have reason to celebrate, as well.
In recent years, automotive recalls have grown rapidly, jumping from around 15 million in 2010 to a record 51 million in 2015. The number dipped last year but still involved around 31 million vehicles, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
According to government and industry data, there’s also been a big shift in the problems leading to recalls. Where mechanical problems, such as defective brakes or axles once dominated the list, electronic gremlins have become much more commonplace during the past decade.
That’s no surprise considering the role that digital technology now plays. Today’s vehicles may use more than 100 different microprocessors to control everything from their engines to their advanced driver assistance systems. It only takes a single line of faulty code out of an average of 100 million lines to cause a potentially serious problem.
Easing the burden for owners
Automotive recalls can be a complicated process. Once a defect is discovered and a fix developed, manufacturers reach out to the owners of affected vehicles by standard mail. In some instances, if a problem is serious enough, they may use additional means of communications. But motorists then must contact dealers, schedule a repair and then take the vehicle in to the service department. That can sideline a vehicle for anywhere from a few minutes to several days.
Over-the-air updates, in contrast, are usually as easy as updating an iPhone. In fact, motorists may not even realize a repair has been completed until they receive an official notification from the manufacturer.
With the new Chinese recall, Tesla simply will upload new software to the affected vehicles to automatically solve the problem.
GM’s new recall involves nearly 300,000 2021 models sold by its Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC brands. The automaker determined that their warning lights may not be triggered by an airbag failure. The affected vehicles all have OTA capabilities and owners “will have the opportunity to accept (updated) software,” GM said, “using wireless over-the-air (OTA) technology without having to bring their vehicle to a dealership. Alternatively, owners may schedule to have the updates performed at a GM dealer.”
Mercedes said owners of 1.3 million vehicles also could opt out of making a dealer visit to repair a software-related problem if they subscribed to the company’s Mercedes Me subscription service.
Cost savings – and safety benefits
While skipping a service call is a clear plus for motorists, there are other benefits, said analyst Abuelsamid, noting, “There are enormous cost savings associated with using over-the-air updated versus bringing vehicles back to the dealership.”
There’s also the likelihood that all of the vehicles experiencing the defect will be fixed, if it’s a software problem, experts note. Getting defects repaired has proven to be a major problem, NHTSA noting that, at most, 70% of owners impacted by a recall typically get repairs completed. And the number can drop sharply when the problem appears to be relatively insignificant.
With many owners facing multiple recalls, data suggest the number of vehicles with unrepaired defects has grown steadily over the last decade. In 2019, vehicle tracking service Carfax estimated there were 63 million vehicles on the road with open safety recalls, a 34% increase from 2016.
OTA offers new revenue opportunities, too
OTA updates won’t be able to address all recalls. There are still problems with faulty brakes, leaky fuel lines and other mechanical issues that involve hardware repairs. But the impact of the technology is likely to grow every year, said Abuelsamid. Ford, for one, expects to have a million vehicles on the road by year-end capable of using remote software downloads. By 2028 it expects the number to reach 33 million.
OTA technology creates other advantages, said Mark Grueber, a Ford marketing executive. The technology also can be used to send new features to vehicles, much as smartphone manufacturers add new apps and functions. Later this year, Ford will upload its new BlueCruise system which will let owners of several models, including the all-electric Mustang Mach-E, drive hands-free under carefully delineated conditions. Automakers see this as a way to generate additional revenues long after a customer purchases a new vehicle and drives off the dealer lot.