As we start 2024, and software-defined vehicles (SDVs) are on the rise, it’s useful to step back and look at what we can learn about vehicle software from the historical recall data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. (NHTSA) – and what it tells us about the future as the presence and complexity of software continue to increase.
Software has become critical to how vehicles function. and its role in mobility is growing exponentially with the proliferation of electrified vehicles. In an increasingly software-powered industry, automakers and their suppliers must take a closer look at how they develop and release automotive software, their software update processes and how they approach software and vehicle quality.
To better understand the challenges, look to historical recall data from NHTSA. An in-depth analysis of NHTSA Recall Data from 1966 through the end of 2023 reveals that the first “software” recall – a recall in which either the corrective action or description mentions “software” – occurred in 1994. Since then, more than 1,000 software-related recalls have occurred, potentially affecting 70.1 million vehicles. While automotive software was only involved in 5% of all recalls since 1966, it has risen in recent years to nearly 15% of all recall incidents in 2023.
The year 1994 marked a pivotal turn in the NHTSA recall dataset. It was the first time software was mentioned in the context of vehicle recalls. That recall occurred when BMW had to address a problem with a double-lock feature that could lock keys and occupants inside the car. The mitigation shows the beginning of a common problem in the thinking around automotive software: Instead of designing systems to think about updating software separately from the hardware, the software is viewed as integral to the specific part and the entire module had to be replaced by the dealer, even though it was a software-oriented fix.
While using Over-the-Air (OTA) software updates has been on the rise, there are still many instances where the only remedy is replacing the entire module just to update the software. The industry needs to do more work around software updates, both at the dealer and via OTA. Many, but not all, of the newer entrants to automotive such as Tesla have designed their systems with software updates at the center – in the same way other consumer electronics like smart TVs and smartphones are produced today. This is crucial. Most legacy car makers think of software updates as an afterthought, not something that is endemic to the earliest milestones of automotive development, which it must be to be effective over the lifecycle of the vehicle.
From BMW to Toyota and Tesla
While BMW’s recall in 1994 was the first, the next significant milestone was the first recall that used a software change to affect more than 1 million cars. That is a famous recall that occurred in 2009, related to the sudden acceleration of Toyota vehicles (pictured, below). Toyota updated software to check for the unprompted application of the brake and accelerator together. While the root cause of this failure was determined to be defective third-party floor mats, software was used to mitigate the situation in many instances.
While not an annual occurrence, there have been 12 software-related recalls, including the Toyota case, that have potentially affected more than 1 million vehicles. In 2023, the most significant recall was Tesla’s autopilot recall which affected over 2 million cars, showcasing the ongoing and evolving challenges faced by the industry. Indeed, software involving the assistive driving stack – from brakes and steering to autopilot – has been a source of many impactful recalls that have occurred since 1994.
A Software-Centric Approach
In many software-related recalls, software is used to correct a problem, rather than the software itself being an issue. Additionally, as software is more malleable, it can provide a more cost-effective way for automakers to address hardware defects or deficiencies. Automakers must develop a strong software delivery system, incorporating both OTA and dealer updates to be able to use this mechanism effectively.
The trend of increasing software-related recalls is a strong indicator of the critical role that software now plays in vehicle design and functionality. It underscores the need for robust software quality assurance processes and highlights the importance of ongoing software maintenance and updates.
The journey from the BMW recall to the significant Tesla recall in 2023 illustrates the growing complexities and challenges in automotive safety. As we continue to navigate this software-centric era, the insights from this data are vital for shaping the future of automotive safety and reliability.
Todd Warren (pictured, left) is a senior advisor at Envorso, specializing in software strategy for the automotive sector.