Software, Autonomous Tech to Raise Vehicle-Recall Stakes

Stout Risius Ross data shows design-related defects were blamed in 60% of U.S. recalls in recent years, a leading-edge indicator that advanced technology and integration issues are becoming big factors.

David Zoia Editor, Executive Director-Content

March 17, 2016

4 Min Read
More to be done to get consumers to bring their recalled vehicles in for repairs
More to be done to get consumers to bring their recalled vehicles in for repairs.Getty Images

SOUTHFIELD, MI – Nascent advanced technology and safety systems already are showing up on vehicle recall lists and will become an increasing factor in industry warranty and compliance efforts, experts here say.

It’s easy to see why. Today’s typical luxury vehicle contains more than 1 billion lines of software code, say officials with Stout Risius Ross, a financial and legal advisory firm that has been compiling and analyzing intricate data on vehicle recalls and warranty costs for several years. That compares to less than 1 million lines of code for the Space Shuttle or 2 million lines for the average fighter jet, the company says.

“Autonomous technology is happening now,” Neil Steinkamp, SRR managing director, tells a gathering of the Society of Automotive Analysts here. “We’re going to see an increase in the amount of this content, with technology integration increasingly involved in Detroit’s defect investigations and recalls.”

Steinkamp points to the potential long life of automotive electronics in the hands of customers. Consumers may trade their smartphones in every two years, but they’ll expect their car’s electronics and software to function a decade or more, he says, and that is putting product quality and safety pressures on automakers other industries don’t face.

“My phone won’t be in my hand for 11 years,” Steinkamp says.

SRR’s analysis shows a handful of recalls last year involving advanced safety technology, including one campaign around a defective automatic braking system that covered 21 injuries and one fatality. There was one recall involving electronic stability control that injured seven and killed one motorist and a single campaign surrounding forward-collision-avoidance technology.

That’s a relatively microscopic number of vehicles in a year that saw a record 51 million summoned back to dealers for safety- and emissions-related repairs. But panelists here say automakers now are taking a hard look at how they’ll manage repair and liability issues for autonomous-vehicle systems and the still-emerging technology – in many cases involving suppliers new to the industry – that is paving the way for them.

“In Detroit, when software crashes vehicles crash,” says Brian Westenberg, a principal specializing in product safety at law firm Miller Canfield. “They don’t understand that yet in Silicon Valley. They’re coming to Detroit and want to partner, but getting their systems into the labyrinth of technology (on board a vehicle) has caused a lot of gnashing of teeth.”

A few automakers, including General Motors and Volvo, already have signaled they’ll assume all liability risks in order to further autonomous-vehicle development.

But ultimately, this transition phase will end and suppliers will be forced to assume a share of the risk surrounding their software-driven technology, Westenberg says. Steinkamp says more and more recall paperwork filed with NHTSA points a finger at specific suppliers, and he expects that trend to continue.

SRR data shows design-related defects (involving all components, not just high-tech items) were blamed in 60% of U.S. recalls in recent years in which a supplier has been identified in a NHTSA filing, compared with just 40% from 2006-2010.

Technology also could be a problem solver, though, Steinkamp points out, helping improve recall compliance rates, for example. As more real-time data becomes available on component performance, automakers may be able to flag problems sooner and limit the number of vehicles required to be recalled. And in the future, it should be even easier to fix software glitches on the fly.

“I think we’ll see over-the-air updates (to onboard software) real soon,” Steinkamp says, pointing to a trend that already is emerging with low-volume automakers such as Tesla.

Among other conclusions drawn by SRR’s recall and warranty data study:

  • How automakers word recall notices can greatly affect whether owners will bring their vehicles in for repair. It varies by vehicle segment and age, but in general it helps to apologize for the inconvenience, and using the word “apologize” rather than “sorry” or “regret” seems to work best. Two-page recall notices appear to get better results than those with more or fewer pages.

  • Recall compliance rates, averaging more than 80% overall, are improving for cars but declining for minivans, pickups and CUVs, suggesting automakers are not communicating recalls as effectively to that buyer demographic.

  • More will be done to get consumers to bring their recalled vehicles in for repair, but there’s still debate over the specifics. Legislation is being kicked around that would require vehicles to be in compliance before they are registered to a new owner or license plates are renewed. But there are hurdles there, because parts often are not available in time for owners to get repairs made. Steinkamp suggests higher insurance fees in the future if repairs are outstanding or maybe an added fine if police pull over a driver with an out-of-compliance vehicle.

[email protected]

About the Author(s)

David Zoia Editor

Executive Director-Content

Dave writes about autonomous vehicles, electrification and other advanced technology and industry trends.

Subscribe to a WardsAuto newsletter today!
Get the latest automotive news delivered daily or weekly. With 5 newsletters to choose from, each curated by our Editors, you can decide what matters to you most.

You May Also Like