IT Behind the Wheel: A Bumpy Road for the Auto Industry?

IT Behind the Wheel: A Bumpy Road for the Auto Industry?

Former software executive worries that the increasing amount of technology embedded into vehicles could lead to more glitches -- and recalls.

We've grown accustomed to the creature comforts that technology -- from keyless entry to GPS to tire-pressure monitoring systems -- provides us in our vehicles. However, when it comes to the role of technology in the manufacturing and product features of vehicles, one former software executive and author believes that the auto industry has just scratched the surface.

"The advances in automotive engineering and design as well as IT will only continue to increase the amount of technology we embed in vehicles," wrote Jeff Papows, author of "Glitch: The Hidden Impact of Faulty Software." "A look into the future reveals that we've only just begun to explore the inclusion of massive amounts of technology in our automobiles."

A recent report by the El Segundo, Calif.-based electronics research firm iSuppli Corp., for example, predicted that 62.3 million consumers worldwide will have Internet access in their cars by 2016, up from 970,000 consumers at the end of 2009.

Jeff Papows, author of "Glitch: The Hidden Impact of Faulty software"
For the on-the-go business professional or tech-savvy teen, that might be welcome news. The question, Papows asks, is "whether we are using technology to add value on behalf of the consumer or simply doing it because we can."

Beyond the obvious driving hazards that in-car Internet use could create, Papows worries that the increasing presence of technology in vehicles has ratcheted up the risk of "life-threatening computing errors" and other glitches that are costing automakers millions of dollars.

Software Glitches Trigger Recalls

In his book, Papows points to Toyota Motor Corp.'s February recall of approximately 148,000 Prius and Lexus models to update the software in the vehicles' antilock brake systems (ABS). At the time, Toyota noted that some owners of 2010 Prius hybrids and 2010 HS 250h Lexus vehicles "have reported experiencing inconsistent brake feel during slow and steady application of brakes on rough or slick road surfaces when the ABS is activated in an effort to maintain tire traction." Since then, Toyota said it has performed 128,000 updates to the ABS software in the recalled Prius and Lexus vehicles.

On April 19, Toyota recalled 9,400 2010-model Lexus GX 460 SUVs to update the vehicles' stability-control software, noting that the vehicles could roll over when navigating sharp turns at high speeds. The safety risk prompted Consumer Reports to issue a "don't buy" warning for the Lexus SUV prior to the recall announcement.

Toyota isn't the only automaker that has experienced software issues in recent months. In February, Ford Motor Co. announced a "customer satisfaction program" in which it offered to reprogram the software in some 2010-model Ford Fusion hybrids and Mercury Milan hybrids. The automaker said the upgrade would "reduce unnecessary occurrences of the vehicle switching from regenerative braking to conventional hydraulic brakes," which some customers had perceived as a loss of brakes.

In August, Honda Motor Co. told owners of approximately 90,000 Civic hybrids that it would fix a software glitch that can cause their vehicle batteries to deteriorate and fail prematurely. Honda, which described the announcement as a "technical service bulletin" rather than a recall, said the software flaw affected Civic hybrids from model years 2006 through 2008.

Pointing to National Highway Transportation Safety (NHTSA) data indicating that electronic system recalls in the United States have tripled since technology was introduced into vehicles 30 years ago, Papows suggests that "the addition of more technology into an automobile -- even to ease the driving experience -- can increase the propensity of glitches."

Earlier this year, Toyota recalled 133,000 2010-model Prius hybrids to update software in the antilock brake systems.
"Automobiles are becoming moving wide-area networks," Papows tells IndustryWeek.com. "They are more and more digital and less and less mechanical. So it logically follows that given all of the challenges that information technology professionals are facing, the more digital [vehicles] become, the more risks there are inherently."

Of course, the auto industry isn't the only sector vulnerable to risks stemming from an increasing dependence on technology. Papows starts his book with the story of a New Hampshire resident who was the victim of a colossal software glitch. The 22-year-old man was erroneously charged more than $23 quadrillion dollars for a pack of cigarettes when he swiped his debit card at a gas station.

Complexity Curve

The increasing use of technology in vehicles and other machines and devices is taking place in the context of a "complexity curve in technology" that "has continued to escalate because of the explosion in handheld devices and the advent of wireless networks, all of which interact with all of these legacy applications" that have been supporting manufacturing processes and other IT infrastructures, Papows explains.

How complex have things gotten? Papows notes that the average manufacturer has roughly 30 million lines of software code in its existing applications. In "Glitch," Papows points to a Frost & Sullivan report that concludes that a modern luxury car contains nearly 100 million lines of software code.

"We have a billion embedded microprocessors for every carbon-based lifeform on the planet," Papows tells IndustryWeek.com. "The instrumentation... that we're dealing with has reached an extraordinary level of complexity.

"IT [professionals] are not just faced with tighter budgets and potentially more rapid times to market to compete for scarcer consumer dollars. They're doing this with all of this added complexity in instrumentation, and all of that's going on concurrently with their responsibilities to maintain all of the legacy applications that they have always had to care for while they build whatever new stuff is being demanded of them. So it's not getting any easier."

Lessons Learned from Toyota

Papows, who was president and CEO of Lotus Development Corp., asserts that companies can learn several lessons from Toyota's recent spate of recalls.

Suggesting that Toyota's IT governance has not kept pace with the automaker's growth, Papows wrote that "[s]uccess and continued company growth need to be carefully managed and aligned with technology processes that are focused on the customer."

In the book, Papows talks about the importance of robust IT governance within companies to minimize weaknesses in the way they build, buy and manage software. IT governance "includes a set of processes, policies and best practices that are used to ensure that the best possible 'glitch-free' software code is used as the foundation for nearly all of our technology innovations." He goes as far as saying that the government should mandate "a specified level of IT governance at organizations that produce products that can directly affect a consumer's quality of life."

Papows also calls for "a more effective way of testing and introducing new technology into automobiles."

"Just as you need a license to drive, I propose that we apply that same principle to the engineers who design and develop technology," Papows wrote. "We could require a stringent technology licensing, certification and renewal process for IT governance in the automobile industry."

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