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'Connected cars' age presents opportunities for manufacturers to improve recalls process, says expert

Manufacturers of 'connected cars' will be able to use the connectivity of those vehicles to improve the way they handle recalls in the event that faults are identified, an expert has said.

Andrew Masterson, a product recalls expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said car manufacturers could put technology built into their vehicles to handle recalls differently in future.

'Connected cars' is a term used to refer to vehicles fitted with technology enabling real-time information to be transmitted to and from the car. The connectivity has the potential to enable driver assistance features, 'infotainment' services and component performance monitoring by manufacturers.

Masterson was commenting after Toyota, Nissan and Honda announced global recalls of millions of their vehicles after an issue was identified with the airbag systems fitted in those vehicles. The manufacturers could replace the airbag inflators in those vehicles.

Toyota said: "We have been conducting various investigations on Takata-produced airbag inflators. Among the parts collected from the Japanese market, certain types of airbag inflators were found to have a potential for moisture intrusion over time. As a result, they could be susceptible to abnormal deployment in a crash. The relationship of moisture intrusion, if any, to the risk of inflator rupture is not known."

Toyota said there is a risk that some driver and passenger airbag inflators "could be susceptible to deploy abnormally". Honda said that there have been no injuries or incidents related to this recall and that it was being carried out for "preventative / investigative reasons". Nissan said it is "committed to a high level of customer safety, service and satisfaction" and is working to "promptly address" the issue.

"In the connected cars environment, technology could assist car manufacturers with recalls," Masterson said. "The more connected the vehicle is, the easier it is to notify the owner that the vehicle is under recall. For example, a message could be sent by the manufacturer and display on a screen in the vehicle to inform car owners of potential faults and to contact a local dealer for an investigation or fix."

"Potentially, connected cars could also allow manufacturers to stream engine management and onboard computer data to compile information about performance. Often manufacturers issue a recall on a safety-first basis after relatively small numbers of concerns are raised. Larger data sets could help determine whether a fault is widespread or more isolated and allow recalls to be better targeted," he said.

Munich-based automotive expert Eike Fietz of Pinsent Masons said that failures in vehicles are "more likely in an environment where cars and their manufacturing become more and more 'tech'". He said this will provide a challenge to car manufacturers and their suppliers because safety requirements, long-term contracts and cost pressures mean "supply lines are fairly inflexible".

However, Masterson said that technology is evolving to the point where recalls could be avoided if faults with connected cars are software-related.

"Tesla's recently launched system of delivering 'over-the-air' software upgrades to their vehicles points to the potential for vehicle manufacturers to deliver solutions to faults remotely by prompting car owners to initiate an upgrade at a touch of a button on a screen inside their vehicles," Masterson said.

Dr Bernd-Uwe Stucken, a Shanghai-based expert in automotive recalls regulations at Pinsent Masons, said that car manufacturers selling vehicles in China need to adopt a recall plan in response to strict regulations on product safety and recalls in the country.

"The Chinese State Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (SAQSIQ)  has wide-ranging powers to intervene where it becomes aware of faults with vehicles," Stucken said. "It can carry out investigations if it thinks defects could have serious consequences, and its employees would be authorised to enter manufacturers' production site and offices and make copies of relevant information and records, such as about the design and manufacturing of the cars being made. This represents a risk to manufacturers' business know-how."

"SAQSIQ could require automotive companies to issue a recall over defects they identify, even where the vehicles comply with safety standards elsewhere in the world. Manufacturers operating in China should adopt a recall plan that recognises the strict regulations in place in the country," he said.

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