Forget about a fifth grader, are you smarter than your car?

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Does your car have Internet access? Regardless of your answer, there’s a high probability that your next new car will indeed feature Internet access.

Research from electronics research firm iSuppli shows that at the end of 2009, roughly 860,000 global consumers had Internet access in their cars. However, by 2016, that number is predicted to jump to 55 million consumers.

Obviously, use of IT in automobiles is not just limited to Internet access. Today’s so-called “luxury car” now has more than 100 million lines of software code running everything from navigation systems to braking systems. While I certainly don’t long for the days when a car with “lots of options” meant power windows, A/C and an AM/FM stereo, I’m sure that I can’t be alone in thinking that the increasing complexity of today’s autos is somewhat bothersome from a “that-feature-is-just-something-else-that-can-go-wrong” perspective.

Because the truth is, things do go wrong. While accounts vary, there can be as many as 20 to 30 defects per thousand lines of software code, so, given the sheer level of code used in autos, software glitches are inevitable. Unfortunately, that means there is either a need for a recall or a voluntary fix.

Consumers aren’t the only ones affected, either. Whatever automakers call it, these fixes cost them millions of dollars. Consider, for instance, Toyota Motor Corp.’s recall of approximately 148,000 Prius and Lexus models to update the software in the vehicles’ antilock brake systems (ABS). Toyota also recalled 9,400 Lexus GX 460 SUVs to update their stability-control software.

Toyota isn’t the only automaker that has recently experienced software issues. Earlier this year, Ford Motor Co. introduced a “customer satisfaction program,” to reprogram the software in some 2010-model Ford Fusion hybrids and Mercury Milan hybrids. And last summer, Honda Motor Co. told owners of approximately 90,000 Civic hybrids that it would fix a software glitch that can cause vehicle batteries to deteriorate and fail prematurely. I don’t envision consumers—no matter how much they detest sitting around an auto dealer’s waiting room—demanding fewer options. If anything, their demands will surely increase.

Automakers will respond, and, consequently, cars of the near future will incorporate more software and become more complex. So the issue becomes this: What can the automotive supply chain do to lessen the extent and cost of software-related recalls or voluntary fixes? For example, the Professional Engineers of Ontario constantly reviews its certification processes for “Engineering works that affect public safety”. 

Certainly, software for key automotive systems should fall in that category. Jeff Papows, who believes the automotive industry has only begun to incorporate IT in automobiles, examines the situation is his book, Glitch: The Hidden Impact of Faulty Software. In the book, Papows--who was president and CEO of Lotus Development Corp.—discusses the importance of robust IT governance to minimize weaknesses in the way companies build, buy and manage software.

IT governance includes a set of processes, policies and best practices that are used to ensure the best possible “glitch-free” software code is used, Papows says. He even goes so far as to say that the government should mandate a specified level of IT governance at organizations that produce products—such as automotive braking systems--that can directly affect a consumer’s quality of life.

I question whether new government mandates really are the answer, but if lives are at stake and millions of dollars are spent on recalls and voluntary fixes of software glitches, this certainly is a challenge that needs to be addressed. What’s more, research firm Frost & Sullivan predicts that lines of code used in a luxury car will rapidly grow from 100 million to 200 million or 300 million in a few years, so unless something is done, the situation will certainly worsen. Either way, this certainly is a situation worth watching.


John Carter
- November 16, 2010 at 12:00pm
It cost me three trips to the dealer and $741.19 to have my computer control module that runs the windshield wipers fixed so my car could be inspected and legally driven in Maine. I guess I did not learn, because my replacement car at 36,790 miles stopped lowering its passenger side front window no matter whether the switch on the door was used or the switch on the driver's "window control console" was used. Fortunately the window was up.

I am now driving basically an unsafe car and I hesitate to take it to the Chrysler dealer for fear it would cost another incredible sum of money to replace the "body control module". I should also mention that buying a Town and Country with hand crank windows would have been more expensive than the one I was convinced to buy with electric windows.

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