Electronics and Semiconductors

Automotive recalls in the V2X era

11 June 2024
Source: chesky/Adobe

Recall campaigns are expensive and disruptive, but with cars produced in their millions, regulators and manufacturers view these as a crucial tool for protecting consumers when the safe operation of the vehicle in the field cannot be guaranteed.

In 2023, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued more than 320 recalls, according to their annual report. Of the more than 32 million vehicles affected by these recalls, 15% were for software.

Interestingly, NHTSA recall data going back to 1966 shows that this is three times the average number of software recalls since the first recorded incident in 1994. With the modern car bristling with electronics, this increase is not at all surprising.

Nevertheless, as the automobile begins to look more like a "processor on wheels,” the transition to the connected software-defined vehicle (SDV) offers manufacturers a unique opportunity to remotely repair faulty software-based systems without any cost or inconvenience to the customer.

Recalls for SDVs

The effectiveness of over-the-air (OTA) updates can be examined by comparing a 2016 Nissan recall for replacement of the occupant classification system ECU versus a recent Tesla recall to rectify steering control issues.

Without V2X connectivity enabling OTA updates, Nissan had no choice but to recall 3.3 million vehicles to replace the ECU because of a mismatch of the software controlling the airbag. Even though the problem was due to software incompatibility, Nissan was compelled to individually replace the complete ECU with one flashed with the correct version of the control program in each car.

In Tesla’s case, more than 1.6 million Model S, X, 3 and Y electric vehicles (EVs) imported into China were “recalled” in January 2024 for problems relating to their automatic assisted steering and door latch controls, after the NHTSA found defective systems. When announcing the action, China's government agency noted that Tesla’s operations in Beijing and Shanghai would use OTA technology to fix the problems, so car owners would not need to visit Tesla service centers to receive the upgrade.

Here, Tesla's connected SDV architecture made it possible for the manufacturer to address this safety-critical issue with minimal disruption to the customer. What is more, by expediently and conveniently addressing the problem, Tesla suffered minimal negative publicity and saved millions in logistical costs, while ensuring close to 100% of all vehicles were updated. In the case of Nissan, for sure there are owners still out there today, driving defective ECUs, either unwittingly or for refusing to comply with the recall.

Even though OTA software updates to a connected SDV are entirely understandable, Tesla has also updated systems that would typically require a trip to the dealer to replace or rectify hardware. For instance, following findings made by Consumer Reports in 2018 that the braking distance on the Model 3 was worse than that of a Ford F-150, Tesla responded with a solution that spared the owner a visit to the dealer to replace brake system components. In a matter of days, Tesla shipped an OTA update that, according to Consumer Reports' testing, improved the braking distance by 19 ft.

While OTA updates rely on V2X connectivity, without the systems being developed on a fully software-defined platform there are limits to what updates can be implemented. This was well illustrated with Audi’s software update for model year 2019 and 2020 e-tron Quattro models that added 12.4 miles of range through several system improvements. The update saves power and unlocks more range by improving control over the cooling system, battery and motor settings. However, lacking the capability bestowed on SDVs to unpack the new software, owners had to take their OTA-enabled e-trons to their dealers for the changes to be implemented.

Why the connected SDV is special

The term SDV refers to any vehicle where the software has a significant impact on the user's experience when interacting with the vehicle. These vehicles also incorporate connectivity into their architecture. They also have interconnected hardware with a powerful central processing system, which when combined with connectivity, allows them to be repaired and updated via OTA updates.

With manufacturers increasing their focus on connected SDV technologies, market intelligence company IDTechEx has developed a six-stage SDV-level guide which compares vehicles' software and software-critical hardware. This covers features such as a vehicle's connectivity, processing capacity, displays and software systems, before assigning an SDV-level for comparison purposes.

By definition, SDV level 0 vehicles do not have the capacity to run system-based software, while higher-level SDVs featuring better connectivity and more powerful computation, such as seen in Tesla’s lineup, are capable of executing data-intensive OTA software updates. Faster data rates and lower latency offered by 5G connectivity define Level 4 SDVs, such as the 2024 Chevrolet Escalade, while future Level 5 vehicles will feature 6G connectivity.

Over the past few years Tesla’s connected SDVs have demonstrated the significant benefits to be gained by delivering OTA updates in response to regulatory, or even self-imposed, recalls. By delivering sustainable and efficient solutions to the increasing and inevitable number of recall campaigns, the consumer may come to view a recall as just another OTA update – similar to what they experience with consumer electronics.


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.

With over-the-air software updates already well entrenched in most manufacturers’ model lineups, consumers are demanding even more functionality and convenience.

This is backed up by a 2022 survey by Aurora Labs, which found that 44% of respondents would pay for optional vehicle functionality as a one-time fee or monthly fee. Forty percent of respondents said they expect their connected vehicles to receive between two and six updates per year beginning in 2025. And nearly 20% expect between seven and 12 OTA updates a year.

However, unlocking the many novel OTA use cases requires the vehicle’s software-controlled systems to be fully integrated by way of the software-defined vehicle. Currently, most OEMs and tier-one suppliers are grappling with the formidable task of interface control and integration.

Since a 2024 AlixPartners survey pointed out that only 1 in 4 automakers and Tier 1 automotive suppliers are fully prepared for software-defined vehicles, the full potential of connected SDVs to revolutionize the way regulators and the automotive industry approach recall campaigns is limited.

About the author

Peter Els is a South Africa-based former automotive engineer. This includes time with Nissan South Africa’s Product Development Division, Daimler Chrysler, Toyota, Fiat/Alfa Romeo, Beijing Automotive Works (BAW), as well as tier-one suppliers Robert Bosch and Pi Shurlok. After consulting to the local industry for 15 years, Els has ventured into technical writing and journalism about the latest trends, technologies, opportunities and threats facing the new world of mobility.

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