This past week Tesla made an announcement concerning a recent recall that garnered headlines not for the problem, but for the way the automaker intended to solve it. The same week that General Motors revealed it would be recalling nearly 400,000 cars (with all the attendant hassle that involves), Tesla report that it was 99 percent complete with its own recall, claiming to have fixed a problem without ever laying a finger on a single vehicle.
So how did the company do it? Tesla’s high-end Model S (with a high-end price to match) is connected to the internet. This allowed the car company to push what it calls “over-the-air” updates to its cars’ computers. In the most recent example, the company said it was concerned that a component responsible for charging the electric cars might overheat, a serious worry that could potentially cause a car fire. Rather than put drivers out by requiring them to bring the impacted vehicles in to be serviced, Tesla simply wrote a software update and pushed the update out to nearly 30,000 of its vehicles, working its repair magic while the car was parked quietly in the owners’ garages.
In contrast to Tesla’s over-the-air approach, GM said that owners of some 370,000 trucks would need to schedule appointments and visit local dealers so that a similar software update could be performed. Elon Musk, founder of Tesla, says that automakers need to reinvent the way that recalls are handled to minimize the inconvenience suffered by car owners.
Tesla announced that the overwhelming majority of the affected cars had already received the update and the rest would be resolved shortly. Given the ease of the Tesla “recall,” Musk said that it is time for the media to come up with a new, better word to describe the nature of these software updates.
Beyond catering to busy car owners, the recalls are also financially beneficial to car companies. After all, if a car is able to fix itself rather than occupy thousands of hours of dealer or mechanic time, that represents a serious savings for automakers, something experts say other car companies will likely try and copy.
Tesla has successfully used the over-the-air update before, though without as much fanfare. Last year when several cars caught fire after running over objects on the road, Tesla released an update that instructed the car to increase the height of its suspension when moving at highway speeds. The updated appeared to work and no other vehicles have since been involved in similar accidents.
The over-the-air approach is certainly novel and likely to be imitated by others. Though the strategy is an interesting one that saves time and money for both car owners and car makers, some caution that there is one problem with the internet-enabled recall: hackers. Though there’s never been an instance where a hacker has hacked into a car, the reality is that if a company has access to a car’s computer and can push safety updates, it is also possible that a wrongdoer could gain similar access and wreak havoc.