Tesla’s safety ‘recall’ will be fixed with a software update

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Last week, it was reported that Tesla was recalling nearly 1.1 million vehicles in the United States because the windows in some of its cars were faulty. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) said it was a violation of federal safety standards because these vehicles may not react properly after detecting an obstacle, such as fingers or pooches that put nose in the wind.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk strongly objected to the term “recall” because these cars will not be physically recalled to a Tesla dealership for repair. Instead, the fix can happen “over the air” (OTA) via a software update. So is it fair to consider this a product recall?

“The terminology is outdated and inaccurate”, Musk tweeted, clearly furious at the perceived injustice. “This is a small over-the-air software update,” he added for good measure. And there’s more than pride at stake, as Tesla stock fell 4.59% when the story broke.

What is the difference between a product recall and a software update?

Most people associate a product recall with a physical return, especially cars. Yet Tesla has taken a more software-based approach than its competitors, as the vehicles are designed to have regular over-the-air (OTA) updates. In some ways, these cars are more like computers on wheels.

And, in the IT world, most people wouldn’t recognize an OTA update as anything other than a fix – certainly nothing as scary as a product recall.

The most high-profile tech product recall in recent years has been the Samsung Galaxy Note 7, which was physically recalled and immediately discontinued due to concerns about exploding batteries. Nice phone – but few people wanted to risk one in their pocket.

Dr. Dong Zhang, a lecturer in automotive design at Brunel University, agrees with Musk that the term booster might be outdated now that so many automotive fixes can be delivered via OTA software updates.

“In the future, smart vehicles will be a bit like our smartphones,” he told The Standard, before adding, “I would say a vehicle has to physically go back to a garage to be recalled.”

In the United States, the official FDA definitions are less fluid. “Recall means a company’s removal or correction of a marketed product that the FDA determines is in violation of the laws it administers and against which the agency would take legal action,” the entry reads.

The word “correction” is important here, as the same page describes this as a “repair, modification, adjustment, relabeling, destruction, or inspection (including patient monitoring) of a product without physically moving it to another location.

Whether Elon Musk likes it or not, Tesla’s fault seems to technically qualify as a recall, solely because it involves physical security, in a way that other downloadable software updates – such as the fix for a Bluetooth bug in the audio system – wouldn’t.

Regardless of the semantics, the nearly 1.1 million affected Tesla Model Y, Model 3, Model S, and Model X owners are expected to receive a letter in November 2022 asking them to download the new OTA software update. Until then, watch those fingers.

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