Wireless Technologies

Do connected cars herald a surge in faults and recalls?

This is a contributed piece by Barry Nielsen, Automotive Solutions Director at Stericycle ExpertSOLUTIONS  

Everywhere you look there’s a buzz around connected vehicles, from Google’s driverless cars to the trials with technology that will take place on HGV trucks that enables them to move in a convoy just metres apart. The benefits are clear: delivery times will shorten, fuel costs will be reduced and environmental congestion will be positively impacted.  

The speed of change is phenomenal with software now accounting for around a quarter of the cost of building a vehicle, touching every area of design from safety management improvements including road condition alerts and approaching hazards through to entertainment apps for streaming and built in windscreen-display navigation services.

But what is not being mentioned is the impact of these developments on automotive recalls. Cars, which are already complex, are set to get even more so, given the increased number of mechanical, technological and software-related components. So what happens when they go wrong?

To illustrate the point, the Q4 2015 Stericycle Recall Index indicates that between Q3 and Q4 of 2015 automotive recalls increased by 16%. The primary cause of these recalls was problems with components including electricals, air bags, brakes and steering systems. 

These issues primarily stem from the reliance of the industry on component manufacturers. If demand for a particular component is big enough the parts can be produced in large volumes which keeps the costs to the car makers down. Inevitably one supplier eventually dominates the market, but if they experience a problem, the ripple effect can have disastrous consequences in the supply chain. A very well-documented case in point concerns eleven different automotive companies and millions of vehicles which are now in the process of being recalled while new air bags are fitted.

Add into this mix the arrival of connected cars with their total reliance on software and the number of recalls is set to soar further. What’s more, car manufacturers are now beginning to see recalls through a slightly different lens, considering not just the immediate safety implications for their customers or the impact on their reputations, but also the length of time they will be embroiled in achieving a successful recall from first notification to repairing every affected vehicle.

This process takes longer than expected. The Stericycle Recall Index goes on to outline that whilst the UK is more effective than the US, for example, the first safety recall notification will still only reach up to a 50% repair rate and this typically decreases with each subsequent notification, eventually averaging a total repair rate of 90%. What is more concerning is that this staggered process can go on for between 18 and 24 months before the repairs are completed and the recall is finished. Consider then the risks for consumers and manufacturers given that unrepaired vehicles are still on the road during this time.

There is no doubt that the automotive sector is committed to vehicle safety. Recalls in this industry are rarely compulsory, with auto makers voluntarily initiating the process. But whilst demand for ever-more complex and connected cars continues to grow, it will remain difficult for manufacturers to reduce the risk of component or engine failure completely. They also, understandably want to offer all the features that add value, but they need to ensure they can deal with any issues that arise as a result.

Increasingly, the connected car is being regarded as part of a customer’s digital lifestyle, but the more connected they are, the more open the car is to new problems, one of which is cybersecurity. ‘Black box telematics’ may allow insurers to assess how carefully the car is driven, and Wi-Fi hotspots on the roof may deliver internet access but by enabling data to be pulled out of, and pushed into the car, they also open the door to the big wide world of the hacker. Which is why 1.4 million vehicles in the US have already been recalled as a result of researchers finding that they could hack wirelessly into an automotive telematics system and shut down the engine. As well as protecting customer safety, vehicle manufacturers are bound by regulations to protect customer data, which adds yet another layer of complexity to the connected car.

Manufacturers and regulators have worked in partnership for years to develop the best and most effective methods for ensuring customer safety in cars. Clever technology alerts drivers, whether it’s to let them know that the car needs a service, or that the anti-lock braking system is faulty, or the rear passenger tyre needs air. However, when it comes to connected cars, technology is moving more quickly than safety regulations. As we have seen this has left a gap which is leading to more vehicle recalls, and more alarmingly is leaving consumers vulnerable to other safety risks. The regulations will catch up before long, so in the meantime manufacturers must ensure best practice extends across the connected car so that we can continue to expand our digital lives without risking our physical lives. 


Read next:

Driverless cars in the UK by 2030?

Driverless cars: Is semi-autonomous the future?

Jeep hacker warns auto makers over “unhackable” claims

The Wiki Man: Jimmy Wales on Africa, driverless cars and robotic pizza


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