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Car recalls can be an inconvenience. Automakers are using new technology to change that.

Only about 70 percent of owners affected by recalls typically get repairs completed.
Image: The Tesla Gigafactory in Shanghai
It's estimated that 63 million vehicles were on the road with open safety recalls in 2019. Over-the-air repairs and updates could significantly reduce the number.Ding Ting / Xinhua / via Getty Images

Recalls can be a big inconvenience for car owners — but that is changing. From Tesla to General Motors, more automakers are using smartphone-style over-the-air updates to replace the faulty software responsible for the recalls.

Automotive recalls have been running at or near record levels in recent years. Last year, around 31 million vehicles were recalled for safety-related problems in the U.S., more than twice as many as in 2010, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA. Government data show that a growing share of the recalls involve glitches in the software controlling the fast-expanding array of onboard computer systems. And, in many cases, it's now becoming possible to fix these problems remotely.

All Tesla vehicles come with the ability to download software to update digital control systems, and most EV startups, such as Rivian and Lucid, plan to build over-the-air, or OTA, capabilities into their products, as well. Ford will have 1 million vehicles on the road with OTA functionality by the end of the year, a number that could grow to 33 million by 2028, the company said. Other manufacturers, including GM, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen, are making similarly aggressive moves.

The technology, which first became commonplace on smartphones, is "going to become pretty much universal over the next five years," said Sam Abuelsamid, principal auto analyst with Guidehouse Insights. The payoff, he said, is likely to be enormous — for both carmakers and car buyers. Safety advocates and regulators have reason to celebrate, as well.

Several new recalls underscore the benefits. Last week, Tesla announced that it will recall nearly 300,000 Model 3 sedans and Model Y SUVs sold in China because a glitch in their driver assistance systems can lead to surges of unintended acceleration. GM, meanwhile, is recalling a similar number of 2021 sedans and SUVs sold by its Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet and GMC brands in the U.S. because their warning lights may not be triggered by airbag failures.

Tesla has routinely used over-the-air updates to tweak onboard technology, and it plans to remotely download new software to fix the latest problem. GM will take a similar approach, remotely replacing the faulty software, although it also said "owners may schedule to have the updates performed at a GM dealer."

The approach is becoming increasingly common. In February, Mercedes said owners of 1.3 million vehicles could avoid dealer visits to repair a software-related problem if they subscribed to the company's Mercedes Me subscription service.

OTA technology won't eliminate the need to take a car in for repairs. Plenty of recalls still involve faulty mechanical systems, such as bad brakes, leaky fuel lines or misfiring airbags. But automakers and industry analysts agree that a sizable share of recalls could be handled remotely in vehicles able to receive remote software downloads.

While skipping a service call is a clear plus for motorists, there are other benefits, said Abuelsamid, the analyst, who said, "There are enormous cost savings associated with using over-the-air updated versus bringing vehicles back to the dealership."

There is yet another significant benefit. At most, only about 70 percent of owners affected by recalls typically get repairs completed, according to the NHTSA. And the number can drop sharply when the problem appears to be relatively insignificant. But even those "can prove deadly," said former NHTSA Administrator Joan Claybrook, a longtime automotive safety advocate.

In 2019, the vehicle tracking service Carfax estimated that 63 million vehicles were on the road with open safety recalls, a 34 percent increase from 2016.

While remotely handling recalls is one of the primary benefits of building OTA technology into new vehicles, there are other advantages. The technology can be used to send new features to vehicles, as well, much as smartphone manufacturers make new apps and functions available.