Articles for May 2015

How do you know quality of software in a car?

When did you purchase your car? In last 5-7 years? How would you describe your car purchase? A car with some advanced software or advanced software with a car?

Car manufacturer’s of hybrid and electric cars are the leaders in using software to provide more functionality and value to the customer. For that matter Tesla and other electric cars can be aptly described as a computer with wheels, steering, electric motor, and a giant battery.

So how much of the car we buy today is software? I could not get a list of Electronic Control Unit (ECU – microprocessor unit which runs software) and the function of each unit from car manufacturer’s web site. However I noticed a nice IEEE Spectrum article which has a table for functionality delivered by software. Also there is a list of ECU’s shared on Priuschat forum. Take a look at the table below which is based on information from these two resources. It is clear that not just hybrid and electric cars, almost all cars today have more software controls than ever.

Car ECU

If software is everything in a car then how do you and I know quality of the software? How can I compare software from Toyota with say software from Honda?

Consumer Reports reports on 17 trouble spots and J. D. Power study looks at 177 specific problem symptoms grouped into eight major vehicle categories. See table below to know these trouble spots and problem categories.

ConsumerReport & J.D.Power

Both survey depends on users like you and I to report the problems. As you will notice there is no category called “software”. May be because software is everywhere hence cannot be a category on its own or may be because when we report on say transmission issue car manufacturer knows it is actually a software issue.

What about publications like “Car and Drivers” where they conduct various tests and publish comparison report? See below list of parameters on which cars are compared against each other.

  • Power train
  • Chassis
  • Acceleration
  • Driving experience

Here also there is no mention of software as one of the parameter for comparing cars.

Should we as a consumer start demanding software specifications and test results? Do we care enough to ask for better quality software? Considering various recalls recently due to software issues for Prius, Ford Fiesta and Focus, Honda Acura MDX/RLXHyundai Santa Fe, GM Cadillac XTS and Impala I just don’t see how we can ignore the problem. I think acknowledging and understanding complexity will be the first step in the right direction.


PS:
1. Yes I am aware that crashes attributed to vehicle issues are tiny (~2%) compare to crashes due to driver error (~94%) according to NHTSA crash stats and data referred in wikipedia article. Per NHTSA crash stats that translates to ~44’000 crashes out of ~2 million estimated crashes for the period 3 July 2005 through 31 December 2007.
2. I am sure you have heard about several software issues with Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and just two weeks before Airbus A400M military transport aircraft crashed probably due to a software glitch killing four crew members on board. Issue is certainly not unique to cars alone.