WASHINGTON -- Automakers would be required to notify owners of vehicle recalls electronically through emails, text messages or other digital tools under a rule change proposed by U.S. auto safety regulators to increase the rate of repairs.
Recall notices sent via first-class mail would still be required, but under the proposal, automakers would be able to choose the “electronic means they feel are most effective” in order to maximize the number of repairs in a recall campaign, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
The agency said “electronic means” would also include targeted social media campaigns, phone calls, over-the-air alerts sent to vehicles, and radio and TV messages in addition to e-mails and text messages.
Automakers have already begun to use Internet and social media ads, phone calls and other electronic tools to raise awareness about recall campaigns, but requiring electronic recall alerts directly to owners of recalled vehicles would mark a new chapter for the industry.
Automakers are under pressure from NHTSA to boost recall repair rates after a wave of major recalls for deadly defects. High-profile recalls of Takata airbag inflators and General Motors ignition switches have gripped the industry in recent years.
More than 51 million vehicles were recalled in the U.S. last year, the second-most on record, behind 2014, when nearly 64 million vehicles were called back for repairs.
Especially troubling to NHTSA is that many recalled vehicles go unrepaired. According to a 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office, annual recall completion rates ranged from 55 percent to up to 75 percent from 2000 to 2008.
According to J.D. Power and Associates, 45 million vehicles recalled from 2013 through 2015 were still unrepaired as of last month.
"Safety recalls are vitally important, but far too often people say they are unaware of open recalls on their vehicles," a NHTSA spokesman said. "This proposed rule would require automakers to add modern tools to the way they communicate to owners about open recalls. NHTSA is committed to using all tools at its disposal to strive for 100 percent recall completions."
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers trade group said flexibility to select from a variety of electronic recall notification tools is important.
“Consumers today get lots of information and we need to get their attention,” the alliance, which represents 12 automakers including the Detroit 3, said in a statement. “Primary notification by mail is still the gold standard, but automakers support supplemental outreach and are already doing it in many ways.”
The proposal was posted to the Federal Register’s website ahead of being officially published on Thursday. The proposed rule was ordered by the Department of Transportation as part of a $305 billion highway bill signed into law by President Barack Obama in December.