Tesla’s software patches, NHTSA’s status quo, and a looming need for updated recall terminologies

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It’s no secret that Tesla is a hot topic, so much so that the coverage around the company is immense. Add to that the rockstar persona of CEO Elon Musk and you have a company whose vehicles are constantly under the microscope. This may seem unfair to some, but that’s how it is. Tesla – by simply being Tesla – is newsworthy.

Tesla’s media value is a double-edged sword. A look at NHTSA’s coverage of the company’s vehicle recalls would prove this point. Tesla’s media coverage is so remarkable that a mainstream news reader would probably get the impression that Teslas receive frequent recalls. The opposite is true. As witnessed Reuters in the chart below, data from January 1, 2020 through February 17, 2022 shows that Tesla is actually recalling its vehicles less frequently than some of the major automakers in the market. Tesla is also the only automaker to perform much of its vehicle recalls via over-the-air software updates.

Credit: Reuters Charts

Tesla currently handles the majority of remote software recalls in the industry, but it would soon no longer be the only one. New EV manufacturers have used the idea of ​​software updates as a way to promote the capabilities of their EVs. Rivian has performed OTA updates on its R1 vehicles, and these cars are just beginning deliveries to customers. The same goes for Lucid with its Air sedan, with the company rolling out features like automatic emergency braking, cross-traffic protection, lane departure protection, traffic alert and others. features earlier this month via a software update. Ford also rolled out updates called “Power-Ups” to the Mustang Mach-E.

Considering that software patches will only become mainstream over the next few years, then the question must be asked: should live software patches be dubbed and categorized with the same terminologies as physical recalls, which usually involve replacing vehicle hardware?

A very different “recall” experience

Any car owner has likely experienced a recall for their vehicle at some point in their driving life. And more likely than not, the experience is probably not that pleasant. I certainly count myself among drivers who view vehicle recalls with concern. My current vehicle, a Japanese-made van, was part of a minor fuel pump recall a few years ago, and even fixing that issue took an entire day of my weekend. The dealership was overwhelmed with the number of cars it was fixing that day, and owners’ tempers flared hour by hour – all for a simple fuel pump replacement. I have been told that my experiences with vehicle recalls are not that unique.

In comparison, a software fix, such as disabling the “rolling stops” feature of FSD Beta, only required affected vehicles to be connected to the internet. There were no visits to the dealership, no forms to fill out and no staff to chat with. The car was connected to the internet, a software fix was implemented and the issue was resolved. It’s safe to say that Tesla’s software fix to disable FSD Beta’s “rolling stops” feature was security-related, and it’s true. But one could also argue that at least from the driver’s perspective, the experience with software and hardware recalls is very different.

The status quo

Despite the different experiences involved when software and hardware vehicle recalls are addressed, it appears the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will, at least for now, maintain the status quo. Teslarati contacted NHTSA to see if it was considering adopting updated terminologies for cars whose patches are supplemented by OTA software updates, but the agency suggested that it probably wouldn’t, at least for the moment. According to NHTSA, automakers must initiate a recall for any repair that addresses a safety risk, whether the issue is resolved by a software update or a hardware replacement.

“The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is committed to ensuring the highest standards of safety on the nation’s roads. NHTSA has robust tools and authorities to protect the public, investigate potential safety issues, and impose recalls when it finds evidence of noncompliance or an unreasonable safety risk. Manufacturers are required to initiate a recall for any repair, including a software update, that remedies an unreasonable security risk. NHTSA recalls may include any repair required, including a software update, to remedy a potential security risk. Manufacturers are also required to submit any communications to owners, resellers and others regarding any software update that fixes a defect, whether or not it is safety-related,” NHTSA said.

Product Recall Specialist and Associate Professor at Indiana University Kelley School of Business Professor George Ball Recount Teslarati that while NHTSA’s use of similar terminologies for software and hardware recalls is “certainly an example of regulators and industry moving at a different pace on technology,” the agency’s reluctance to adopt new terminologies for OTA patches is understandable. Professor Ball further explained that using terms like ‘software recall’ to refer to software-based vehicle fixes could imply a reduced level of risk, and that’s something NHTSA probably wouldn’t. willing to do.

“I believe that NHTSA would resist the terminology of ‘soft recall’ because it involves a reduced level of risk to the customer and allows the company to be less scrutinized by the press and public for product corrections. quality. Although some updates are minor, some of Tesla’s software upgrades are actually quite serious and, if not performed, may allow a harmful defect to persist,” the recall specialist said.

But while NHTSA’s stance on recall terminologies is entirely understandable, there’s no denying the fact that issues covered by vehicle recalls carry a very wide range of risks. Take Tesla’s recall for 817,143 vehicles, which was announced earlier this month, for example. The recall was initiated because a software error may prevent a warning chime from activating even if drivers have not fastened their seat belts. From a layman’s perspective, this recall seems serious as it affects over 800,000 Teslas on the road today. However, the problem was simply fixed via firmware version 2021.43.101.1 and later, which included a fix for the seat belt chime error.

Compare that with General Motors 400,000 pick-up trucks recalled last year in the USA. Granted, it only affected about half as many vehicles as Tesla’s seatbelt chime recall, but its hardware nature suggested the risk presented by the issue was great. The recall covered certain 2015 and 2016 Chevrolet and GMC Sierra 1500, 2500 and 3500 trucks, and it involved a faulty airbag inflator that could rupture without warning. To resolve the issue, owners of the affected trucks needed to visit a dealership so they could have their airbag modules replaced. Since parts were in short supply last year, however, owners were notified with a letter informing them of the availability of spare parts for their trucks.

What can be done

While NHTSA will likely continue to maintain the status quo with its recall terminologies for the foreseeable future, Professor Ball said. Teslarati that the agency can actually implement some tweaks now that can clarify patches and distinctive security issues. This would likely be hugely important in the near future as more connected cars are rolled out and software updates become the norm.

“If I were to give advice to NHTSA, I would recommend that they get ahead of this issue before every automaker starts updating cars like Tesla. One way to do that is to require the automaker sends all automatic updates to NHTSA when they are released, and to classify the updates as “minor” or “major. Any major update that impacts customer safety would be classified as a reminder. Automakers won’t like this, but it will help keep security patches transparent to everyone, especially consumers. By sending all updates to NHSTA, the agency could assign qualified people to check the ratings given by the manufacturer, to make sure they are making good decisions there.

“I think any language that downplays the importance of a safety reminder is unlikely to be supported by NHTSA, and it probably won’t help customer safety. A clear distinction should be made between updates. minor updates and major updates that affect security. These major updates should be classified as a recall, and NHTSA should get these updates under control and track them soon, or they will be way behind the industry,” said the recall specialist.

Recalls can affect the public’s perception of a company. Software fixes should be one of the factors seen as a plus for automakers like Tesla, not the other way around. Gary Black, managing partner of The Future Fund LLC, explained this from the perspective of a Tesla investor. “Given that so far every NHTSA recall could be resolved quickly via Tesla OTA updates, ‘recalls’ are noise to most investors. Tesla’s huge software advantage highlights one of the biggest advantages of owning Tesla over all other EV makers,” the Wall Street veteran said. Teslarati.

OTA updates, including those related to vehicle security, are coming. With automakers like Ford joining the group of automakers embracing OTA updates, software patches are inevitable. In the end, I’m inclined to agree with the recall specialist. By refusing to adapt to the advent of vehicle software patches, NHTSA risks being left behind by the automotive industry. And that’s a scenario that I don’t believe any automaker — or government agency for that matter — would prefer.

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Tesla’s software patches, NHTSA’s status quo, and a looming need for updated recall terminologies






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