NHTSA pushes for the electronic recall notices we should've had years ago

September 1, 2016

A little over a year ago, we told you about a bill introduced in the U.S. Senate that would've required automakers to send recall notices by both email and snail mail. Alas, that bill died, so the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is taking matters into its own hands with proposed updates to U.S. auto regulations.

NHTSA has been planning these updates for some time. In fact, the groundwork for them was laid in 2015 and 2012, with laws aimed at bringing recalls into the digital age.

READ: Tesla may disable Autopilot for drivers who don't follow the rules

Under NHTSA's proposal, automakers would still be required to send recall notices to car owners via postal mail. However, they'd also have to send notification by some form of electronic means. 

What "electronic means" means, though, may vary from automaker to automaker. In crafting its proposal, NHTSA sought input from manufacturers and consumer groups and found that each had its own set of policies and practices in place. To respect those differences, NHTSA is--for now, at least--giving automakers leeway to determine their own preferred methods of electronic communication, based on their experiences in the field: 

"The proposal gives the recalling manufacturer the flexibility to define and determine the electronic means they feel are most effective to employ in an effort to optimize the recalls completion for a particular recall campaign. As many of the commenters noted, there are a wide variety of electronic means currently available for use by manufacturers and some have chosen to use as a supplementary means of notification with varying degrees of success. A flexible approach values the knowledge and experience of the recalling manufacturers concerning what means are most likely to reach and resonate with their owners and motivate them toward taking steps to have their products remedied.

"Accordingly, we propose defining 'electronic means' to include 'electronic mail, text messages, radio or television notifications, vehicle infotainment console messages, over-the-air alerts, social media or targeted online campaigns, phone calls, including automated phone calls, or other real time means.' As with any recall communication, the Agency retains the discretion to require other means and additional notifications if the manufacturer's chosen means is impractical, does not feasibly reach all of the purchasers or owners impacted, or the Agency otherwise deems inappropriate. At this time we decline to set any additional and mandatory notification means beyond the electronic means identified here."

Translation: "We're going to let car companies choose their own means of electronic communications, but we reserve the right to disagree."

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Our take

All in all, this is probably good news for automakers. Recall repair rates on new cars are fairly high--around 75 percent. After that, though, the rate drops to 44 percent. Among cars ten years and older, repair rates can be as low as 15 percent. 

The more unrepaired cars there are on the road, the more likely an automaker is to be sued for a defect. And if the repair rate is especially high, NHTSA can fine automakers.

The proposed changes were published today, and comments will be accepted through October 31. In the meantime, if you want to get a head start on electronic recall notices, you can sign up for email notifications from NHTSA here.

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