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Thought Leader: A Yellow Light for Technology Behind the Wheel

Nov. 10, 2010
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 provides us in our vehicles -- from keyless entry to GPS to tire-pressure monitoring systems. However, when it comes to the role of technology in the manufacturing and product features of vehicles, former software executive Jeff Papows believes that the auto industry has just scratched the surface.

Papows, the former president and CEO of Lotus Development Corp. and author of "Glitch: The Hidden Impact of Faulty Software," asserts that as automotive engineering and design of technology embedded in vehicles.

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.

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."

"Automobiles are becoming moving wide-area networks.
They are more and more digital and less and less mechanical."
-- Jeff Papows "Automobiles are becoming moving wide-area networks," Papows tells IndustryWeek. "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."

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."

On April 19, Toyota issued a "voluntary safety recall" for 9,400 2010-model Lexus GX 460 SUVs to update the vehicles' electronic 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 this year.

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."

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.

Better IT Governance Needed

Papows believes that companies can learn several lessons from the recent spate of software-related recalls.

In the case of Toyota, he asserts that the automaker's IT governance has not kept pace with its growth, suggesting that "success and continued company growth need to be carefully managed and aligned with technology processes that are focused on the customer."

Papows emphasizes 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 explains in his book. 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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