Over-the-air updates may alter NHTSA recall policy

Automotive News – The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it will evaluate how to conduct recalls in an age of remote fixes and over-the-air updates.

On Thursday, Jan. 19, NHTSA ended its investigation into the death of a Tesla driver who crashed into the side of a truck while the car's semiautonomous Autopilot technology was engaged. Tesla has updated the system in cars already on the road, now forcing drivers to keep their hands on the wheel most of the time.

Over-the-air updates to repair and upgrade vehicles have become more common as cars increasingly rely on software. With automakers' ability to fix vehicles without bringing them in for servicing, as Tesla did, NHTSA said its nearly 20-year-old recall policy will have to adapt.

Remote updates could mean that eventually, "Automakers don't have to send mailed letters to notify owners," said NHTSA spokesman Bryan Thomas. "These are questions the agency will have to deal with in the future."

Thomas said the agency is expected to address these issues in more detail as it develops the Federal Automated Vehicles Policy, a 15-point guideline on the regulation of self-driving cars. However, the increased frequency of remote upgrades may prompt the agency to move faster.

NHTSA opened its investigation into Tesla in June after Joshua Brown died in a crash in May. Brown had activated Autopilot at the time of the crash, and investigators determined that while he had 7 seconds to react, he had not taken any actions to avoid the truck. NHTSA did not find a safety defect in Autopilot and said the automaker did not have to issue a recall.

Though Tesla had maintained that Autopilot was not responsible for Brown's death, it issued a number of over-the-air updates to the software. The upgrades included increased use of radar sensors and a "strike out" feature that would disable Autopilot if drivers took their hands off the wheel too many times.

On a call with reporters to discuss the investigation, Thomas said the software changes did not affect the agency's decision. "While we're getting to an era of being able to do over-the-air updates, that doesn't change automakers' responsibility," Thomas said, adding that if a software defect is found, automakers will have to follow the recall process before issuing a remote fix.

"With the capability to do over-the-air updates, if a defect is found, it can be fixed overnight," Thomas said. "We want to move quickly to that future."

Image citation: Steve Jurvetson, CC BY 2.0

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