A few weeks from now, Tesla will notify owners of almost 1.1 million vehicles about a safety issue the electric-car maker already started addressing last month.
The US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration didn't force the manufacturer to make the fix — Tesla discovered the window glitch through internal testing and determined it warranted a voluntary recall. But the company is required by law to send out letters to each owner's mailboxes, and deem this a recall, even if it remedied the issue with an over-the-air (OTA) software update.
Elon Musk isn't the only one who thinks this is anachronistic. Justin DeAmarre, who owns a Model 3 and a Model Y, has at least twice received a letter from Tesla about a problem Tesla had addressed with an OTA update a week or two before.
"It's confusing for customers," says DeAmarre, whose YouTube account Bearded Tesla Guy has more than 60,000 followers. "Getting that letter does seem wasteful."
Musk no doubt has more pressing issues with NHTSA. The agency has been scrutinizing Tesla's driver-assistance system Autopilot through two defect investigations, one of which was opened after its vehicles repeatedly collided with police cars and fire trucks at crash scenes.
Shortly after that probe was opened, the company might have undercut its chief executive officer's bellyaching by neglecting to issue a recall when it deployed an OTA update intended to improve how Teslas detect emergency vehicles.
Nevertheless, as more automakers follow Tesla's lead and build OTA update capability into their vehicles, at least one former NHTSA administrator agrees the agency could afford to update its notification protocols.
"It is time to bring the recall process into line with the technology now available," says Mark Rosekind, who headed the regulator during the Obama administration.
"The terminology is outdated & inaccurate," Musk tweeted in September. "This is a tiny over-the-air software update. To the best of our knowledge, there have been no injuries."
Congress gave NHTSA the ability to pivot from the requirement that recall notices be sent by mail as far as back as 2012. A highway funding law passed then permitted the agency to move to a system where notifications would be sent in a manner prescribed by the Transportation Secretary.
While federal law still requires manufacturers to send recall notifications by first-class mail all these years later, NHTSA said in a statement that it's working on a rulemaking to also require electronic recall notification. The agency noted that a federal transportation bill that superseded the 2012 measure allows for electronic notifications, but only in addition to the first-class mail requirement.
"These letters are often the only way an owner learns about a recall, the safety issue involved and the risk from the safety defect," NHTSA said.
With recall response rates stuck in the roughly 70 percent range, Michael Brooks, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, believes NHTSA should consider adopting an all-the-above approach to notifications.
"In an ideal world, you have everything bugging the hell out of you — email, text, snail mail, car alert," Brooks says. "The more outreach on unfixed safety issues, the merrier."
Rosekind said that each new element of a proposed update to the recall notification process "would need to be evaluated for the most appropriate mechanism."
Brooks could see NHTSA employing a workaround that might be enough to satisfy Musk — an exemption from the mail provision, provided that manufacturers certify the software update has already been applied to all vehicles and that owners have been notified. But he isn't holding his breath, in part because the portion of recalls being resolved over the air is still small.
"Overhauling the entire recall notification system based on OTAs probably doesn't make sense," he said.