High-Tech Car Recalls: An Emerging Trend

by Terry Bryant

As vehicles further embrace technology, software and operating system flaws are already having a profound impact on driver safety, as well as auto industry responses to these dangers. Two recent recalls illustrate this transformation.

In June 2017 – only a few weeks after issuing a recall, and only a couple of months after learning of the problem – Fiat Chrysler Automobiles began making fixes to 1.25 million Dodge Ram pickups to correct a software error that may have caused one crash death and two injuries in another. The “glitch” could temporarily disable the vehicles’ side air bag and seat belt pretensioners, which snugly secure passengers in a crash. The company is reprogramming the software error.

In September 2016, General Motors recalled more than 400,000 vehicles (primarily Buick and Chevrolet) which experienced similar system problems. Reports of GM vehicles’ sensing and diagnostic modules’ failure to inflate airbags in a crash and the possibility of their seat belts not working during accidents began reaching the automaker in May 2014. But GM was much slower in warning the public about these problems that killed at least one person and reportedly injured scores more.

When it comes to defective product lawsuits, two issues that profoundly impact them are: (1)  what did the manufacturer know and when did they know it, and (2) why they did little or nothing to address the issue after knowing it caused serious injury or death. In many cases, they believe it’s cheaper to pay  insurance claims than to fix the problem. But automakers are beginning to behave differently. Record fines against them by the National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA), and the accumulation of more lawsuits by injured consumers, are helping to lead a change in their behavior.

A New Landscape: High-Tech Vehicles Create Greater Opportunities for Hackers

Cars and trucks are morphing into “driving systems” that insulate drivers from their long-held responsibilities by making elemental decisions for them with greater frequency, such as braking, staying in lanes, and parallel parking, to name a few. But the downside to these features is that, as vehicle networking proliferates, they become “targets of opportunity” for sophisticated hackers. In March 2016, the FBI issued a warning to automakers and consumers to “maintain awareness of potential issues and cybersecurity threats related to connected vehicle technologies in modern vehicles.”  And in conjunction, the NHTSA and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) released uniform guidelines to govern automakers’ design of cars that can be safely controlled even after a successful cyberattack.

According to experts, one of the more popular ways for hackers and ransomware thieves to compromise a vehicle’s automated operation and safety systems is via apps in their infotainment system that connect to the internet.  Another – and often easier – route is through unsecure smartphone apps that connect to your car through your phone. These experts also note that many of these hacks are exploited through Android’s operating systems, though Apple’s iOS also presents a smaller number of risky vulnerabilities.

Either way, consumers are tricked into downloading apps or updates that look real but are really malware, just like clicking on a phishing link in an email. When they begin to use the phony app, or the install the update, the malware initializes, infecting targeted systems which can then be controlled by an invading hacker.

Many automakers which were historically slow to respond to recalls in the past are modifying those practices today. If they continue to do so, a generation of safer cars, with much fewer injuries and wrongful deaths, are likely to result.

To schedule a free consultation with Terry Bryant Accident & Injury Law, contact us today by filling out our online contact form or giving us a call at 1 (800) 444-5000 or locally in the Houston area at (713) 973-8888.