Tesla's Latest Recall: The Power of Software-Defined Cars

22-02-2024 | By Robin Mitchell

Key Things to Know:

  • Tesla's recall of over 2 million vehicles for minor software adjustments underscores the evolving landscape of automotive engineering and the pivotal role of software-defined systems.
  • The ability to address vehicle recalls through over-the-air (OTA) software updates highlights a significant shift towards more sustainable and efficient solutions in automotive safety and maintenance.
  • The recent NHTSA investigation into Tesla's steering control issues exemplifies the critical importance of software in ensuring the safety and reliability of modern vehicles, marking a new era of software-defined vehicle safety.
  • This shift towards software-defined systems presents new challenges and opportunities for engineers, emphasising the need for robust software diagnostics, OTA update capabilities, and the integration of hardware and software to advance automotive safety and innovation.

Once again, Tesla has made the news by issuing a recall on over 2 million vehicles due to incorrect font sizes on their warning light button, but while some criticise Tesla’s recall, others recognise that the ability to provide remote updates demonstrates the power of software-defined systems. What challenges do vehicle recalls introduce, why does this recall demonstrate the power of software-defined systems, and what does this mean for engineers going forward?

What challenges do vehicle recalls introduce?

The automobile, next to the transistor and radio, has provided humanity with immense capability, allowing for long-distance travel in extremely short periods of time. A journey that could take several days on horseback can be done in a matter of hours with a few litres of petrol and one or two restroom stops. 

Unsurprisingly, the ability to haul goods over large distances in a short period of time has made automotives one of the most popular methods for travel, with the vast majority of people either owning or having access to a vehicle. In fact, it is estimated that there are more cars than people on the planet, demonstrating their convenience and desirability. 

However, the strict regulations surrounding vehicles combined with the increasingly complex nature of vehicles and requirements for strong safety features introduce numerous failure points, which not only make vehicles difficult to manufacture but also expensive. Furthermore, with so many potential failure points, the chances of something going wrong increase.

But by far, one of the biggest challenges faced with modern vehicles is the risk of a product recall. Considering that cars are manufactured in the millions, any product recall resulting from a faulty sensor, incorrectly placed bolt, or potential brake issues can be extremely costly. 

Such risks require businesses to make up for such potential losses through increased car prices, downgraded features, or the use of lower-quality materials and/or manufacturing practices. Additionally, vehicles that are found to be frequently recalled could potentially be hit with increased car insurance prices, making them harder to sell to customers.

When a vehicle recall is issued, vehicle manufacturers also face the risk of tarnishing their brand image, with recalls often being associated with poor quality and cheap practices. Additionally, the fact that safety in vehicles is an absolute priority means that consumers may be dissuaded from using a particular brand, especially for families. 

Overall, vehicle recalls are a common fact of life for vehicle manufacturers, and every recall runs the risk of diminished profits and a degraded public image.

Tesla’s latest recall demonstrates the power of software-defined systems

Here at Electropages, we have seen numerous stories surrounding Tesla and its unusual engineering decisions, demonstration of challenges, and even potential legal troubles with customers as a result of their technology. Furthermore, we have also explored many other offerings from the owner, most of which have failed to provide results, demonstrating a general lack of realism and understanding of practical applications of technology. 

However, their latest vehicle recall, which is estimated to include 2.2 million vehicles, actually demonstrates a very strong feature of Tesla vehicles: software updates. The recent recall has been issued due to the vehicle control buttons using font sizes that are too small, but while most other vehicle recalls require manufacturers to take the vehicles back and make modifications, Tesla merely needs to provide a software update to fix the issue.

While this is technically a vehicle recall, to call it a recall is somewhat misleading as it implies that vehicles are being collected, fixed, and sent back, whereas in actual reality, it’s just a minor software update. For comparison, this would be claiming that every Windows 10 update is a product recall, which is anything but the truth.

But what this so-called recall does demonstrate is the extreme power of software-defined systems and how they can not only save manufacturers money but also provide ongoing feature updates to customers. By shifting as much functionality of a system into software, it becomes possible to make changes to a few lines of code, push the update remotely, and provide users with an improved experience.

Bridging Innovation and Safety in Automotive Software

The recent NHTSA investigation into Tesla's steering control issues, as highlighted in their comprehensive report, exemplifies the critical importance of software in modern automotive design and safety. This case, involving potential loss of steering control in a significant number of Tesla Model 3 and Y vehicles, underscores the challenges and responsibilities engineers face in the era of software-defined vehicles. It's a potent reminder that software's role extends far beyond enhancing functionality—it's integral to ensuring the safety and reliability of the vehicle.

Tesla's ability to address such critical issues through over-the-air (OTA) software updates showcases the revolutionary potential of software-defined systems in the automotive industry. This capability not only streamlines the recall process but also minimises the environmental impact and inconvenience to vehicle owners traditionally associated with physical recalls. It represents a significant shift in how automotive manufacturers can manage and resolve safety concerns, emphasising the importance of software in the automotive safety lifecycle.

In the case of Tesla vehicles, as the warning light button is virtually displayed on a screen, adjusting the font size is extremely simple. But even for more advanced subsystems such as adaptive cruise control, integrated AI and object recognition, or the power delivery systems in the motors, updates and fixes can be provided without needing any physical access to the vehicle itself. 

What does this mean for engineers moving forward?

Clearly, if this recall teaches engineers anything, it’s that moving towards software-defined hardware is the winning goal for future hardware. For example, hardware designs in the future could become more reliant on programmable arrays, such as FPGAs and CPLDs, which allow for software updates to change how the hardware works. 

By allowing hardware to be adjusted, engineers can fix bugs that would otherwise require entire board replacements and/or dedicated jigs to manipulate circuit paths. Such hardware would also allow for future circuit upgrades, potentially supporting new protocols and specifications and even allowing for entirely different modules to be connected via unified device ports. 

Additionally, such hardware would also help to minimise e-waste by keeping designs relevant for longer periods of time. This would also help to reduce the cost faced by consumers, as new hardware functionality can be programmed via updates without needing to perform major upgrades. 

Overall, the ability to push software updates to products in the field is immensely powerful, and it is clear that engineers should move in this direction. Currently, there are few consumer devices supporting programmable hardware, but it may not be long before they become more commonplace, especially with the rise of technologies such as RISC-V.

The Future of Engineering: Software-Defined Innovation

The implications of the Tesla steering control investigation for engineers are profound. It highlights the necessity of incorporating robust software diagnostics and OTA update capabilities into the design and development of modern vehicles. Such features are no longer just conveniences but are essential for ensuring ongoing safety and compliance with evolving standards. Engineers must now consider software not just as a feature set but as a critical component of the vehicle's safety architecture, capable of addressing and mitigating risks in real-time.

Furthermore, this situation illuminates the path forward for automotive engineering: a future where hardware and software are seamlessly integrated to enhance not only the user experience but also vehicle safety and reliability. As vehicles become more connected and autonomous, the ability to remotely diagnose and rectify issues will become increasingly vital. This evolution towards software-defined vehicles not only challenges engineers to rethink design strategies but also offers an opportunity to significantly advance automotive safety and innovation.


By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.