Should cars have a recall light?

2014 was a bad year for automotive recalls. GM's poorly-designed ignition switches and Takata Corporation's faulty airbags have prompted the recall of tens of million of cars alone, and many more of the smaller, more "common" recalls have continued just the same. But beyond the media coverage of those big stories, there remains a very antiquated and unreliable system for actually getting recalled cars back into dealerships for repair.


The problem is that many of the affected cars are up to ten or even fifteen years old. They are no longer owned by the original purchaser, and many haven't been serviced by dealerships in years. So how can companies be sure to get affected cars in for proper servicing before more injuries occur? It seems, right now, that the answer is "they can't".

Sending a letter to the original purchaser or "last known" owner of a car is the current standard method, but it can't possibly be the most efficient way of notifying people of a potentially dangerous, or even deadly, problem with their car. In 2015, cars are more connected than ever before, and we think that this presents an opportunity to create a universal notification system for recalls—a simple dashboard warning light.

It's obvious that this will be more complicated to implement in older cars than future ones, but there are a lot of technologies available that I think make it a viable option, and something that could save automakers and customers a lot of hassle and problems.

For cars not yet manufactured, adding a single warning light is an easy task. In the image below, you can see a mocked up version of a clear "recall" warning symbol that would fit with standard warnings currently in use. Today's modern electronic dashboards, warning clusters and center console screens make this an easy upgrade that I think consumers will demand. For cars already on the road, the answer is a bit more complicated, but far from impossible.


Many of the cars on the road today already use some entirely digital component in their dashboard. During the next service, a car's firmware could be updated to add a recall warning light and description. It's not an uncommon thing to do for many premium models already, with software updates being a regular part of BMW iDrive or Mercedes COMAND servicing. On cars that are still running entirely analog gauge clusters, there's no easy fix, but there is possibly a solution in the form of digital radio.

With the added bandwidth available on digital radio, standard radio stations could be used to emit a signal that could be acknowledged only by recall-affected cars, displaying a message on the radio display itself. Much like the traffic or song title you see now, a recall message would be a simple way to communicate to owners in their cars to check with a dealer or the NHTSA. Whether this is possible with current setups, I honestly don't know, but using a car's VIN or model number to get a "handshake" through the radio doesn't seem so far-fetched. It also would mean that drivers won't have to fear any kind of two-way communication or tracking of their driving, because this method would be entirely passive. Once the message was received, it would function much like an OBD or check-engine light, that will continue to be tripped until the car is serviced and the problem resolved.

So there's chance we can reach out to many owners of recalled cars in ways that are much more direct than currently used, and potentially get recalled cars off the road and infer repair more quickly. But is there any will in the car industry to add a warning light for recalls? I think there should be. If automakers truly care about the safety of their customers and the long-term viability of their cars, it should be something they rush out to implement as soon as possible.