Automakers are betting big on software and what it means for increased revenue streams — but to date, they’ve shown it’s one of their biggest weaknesses.
Customers want greater connectivity and a seamless experience between their home, phone and car. But surveys from Consumer Reports and J.D. Power put software defects as the most pervasive problems plaguing new vehicles today. That’s more than just infotainment, but extends to climate control, performance elements like four-wheel drive and safety features like backup cameras and advanced driver-assistance systems.
Problems with in-vehicle technologies have led to lawsuits costing tens of millions of dollars and spurred federal investigations.
Automakers, however, say the billions of dollars they are investing into software are worth it. Technology coming in the next few years will make it easier for them to respond to issues with over-the-air updates and through the cloud. It also creates opportunities for greater capability, better performance, more features and the potential for new revenue streams with fatter, tech-like margins.
Vehicles like the Grand Wagoneer SUV from Stellantis NV’s Jeep team come available packed with over-the-air navigation map updates, Wi-Fi connectivity, infrared night vision and Amazon.com Inc.’s Fire TV rear-seat entertainment.
That drew Scott Staszak, 33, of Bay City after finding the screens in the 2021 GMC Yukon Denali disappointing because of their complexity for his under-8-years-old children. The Fire TV is easier and similar to what the family has at home, but after months of waiting amid a global microchip shortage for the vehicle — which came in the wrong exterior and interior color — the audio for the rear screens wasn’t working.
His children have to wear headphones to listen. The front console screen’s ability to view what is on the rear screens when the vehicle isn’t in motion also isn’t working.
“In times like today, you have to buckle up and anticipate the issues here and there,” Staszak, owner of Game Changer Therapy Services, told The Detroit News. “They’re minor compared to a transmission or four-wheel drive issue.”
And he has no issues there: “This is amazing,” he said of his half-day test drive in the top-of-the-line Series III Grand Wagoneer, which led him and his wife both to get their own Grand Wagoneers. Hers hasn’t had issues, and Staszak says Stellantis is paying for the first two months of his lease.
But software also often is the fix for quality issues like the ones Staszak experienced: In late December, Stellantis rolled out an over-the-air update for audio-system speaker distortion in the Wagoneers. It also has software remedies through its dealers affecting four-wheel-drive engagement and batteries draining.
“A software-enabled future means that long after a product is delivered to our customers, it will continue to be fresh with over-the-air updates,” said Mamatha Chamarthi, Stellantis’ head of software business and product management, in a statement.
There’s a greater trend in the industry around software bugs, though. Among the newest vehicles, in-car electronics account for about 30% of reported problems, according to watchdog Consumer Reports. Data analytics firm J.D. Power’s most recent Initial Quality Study shows half of the top 10 problems customers experience with new vehicles are related to software. This category had an increase of 1.4 problems per 100 vehicles year-over-year, while every other category saw improvement in quality.
“The industry is trying to deliver on that connected lifestyle, but the challenge is very present,” said Kristin Kolodge, J.D. Power’s vice president of auto benchmarking and mobility development. “Across the board, it’s something that we are seeing consistently from premium to the mass market. There’s not really anyone that has this dialed into perfection.”
More of the vehicle now than ever is controlled or influenced by software, and the complexity of it is increasing as automakers add more features and capabilities. But it can increase the chance of something going wrong similar to a buggy smartphone after its operating system updates.
“When you update your smartphone to the latest operating system and then it’s buggy, you’ll update to 10.01 to fix the three more bugs,” said Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports’ senior director of auto testing. “It doesn’t work so well when you’ve got a car. It’s hard to tolerate when you need your vehicle to commute to work.”
Plus, an update can alter a vehicle’s interface. Recent ones from Tesla Inc., for example, changed the location for turning on the windshield wipers and removed the option for light regeneration from the throttle, which makes the vehicle slow down faster and can increase slip risk on ice, Fisher said.
Frequent changes in software and hardware can lead to various combinations on the road, some that may be more compatible than others, he added: “It makes it very difficult to investigate.”
Problems with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto that allow users to project their phone onto a vehicle’s display knocked issues with vehicle voice recognition from the top complaint for the first time since 2011 in J.D. Power’s survey. This likely occurred because of new features — more vehicles adopted wireless versions of the phone-connected technologies instead of having to plug in the device, Kolodge said.
Although some of these issues may seem like just a nuisance, they can risk safety, said Sean Matt, partner at the Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP law firm in Seattle. Matt in December settled for $33 million a class-action lawsuit on behalf of plaintiffs suing American Honda Motor Co. Inc. over allegedly “concealed or misrepresented” infotainment defects in certain Odyssey, Passport and Pilot vehicles. Plaintiffs reported a system that stayed on when the vehicle was off that drained the car battery, popping noises coming from speakers, and connectivity problems with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
“If you are going down the road, and the speakers start crackling, that’s startling, and it distracts you,” Matt said. “When you have a connectivity problem because the car has to be hands-free, and you’re late picking up your kid from basketball practice, it’s distracting. There are safety implications.
“It’s important that manufacturers make sure they are robustly taking time to test and doing so before the cars are rolled out. Testing is paramount.”
Honda spokesman Chris Martin declined to provide specifics on future improvements in infotainment, but said the 2022 Civic was named North American Car of the Year with Consumer Reports noting its infotainment system is “easy to use.”
“As with any area of customer concern,” Martin said in a statement, “Honda proactively works to resolve existing complaints in the interest of customer satisfaction, and at the same time, we’re constantly looking at ways to improve usability for future models.”
Computers, however, also are taking over more of the driving functions in vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is conducting safety probes of 11 instances in which Teslas collided with parked emergency vehicles with the semi-autonomous Autopilot system activated. The technology can steer, brake and accelerate the vehicle on its own. There were a total of 17 injuries reported, and one of the cases resulted in a fatality.
The investigation highlights concerns the consumer watchdog nonprofit Center for Auto Safety has raised regarding over-the-air updates, including automakers not issuing a recall for safety issues, which is required by law. Tesla released an update in September to help with emergency vehicle detection in low light, but didn’t issue a recall. The center also worries software updates may be used to address hardware defects.
“We think that software is great, particularly when it is for crash detection and prevention, and it takes a lot of updates to be accurate,” said Michael Brooks, acting executive director of the center that has been tracking software recalls since the early 2000s. “But then it goes inside the vehicle and things are happening out of sight, and informed consumers want to know. We want it to be public whether there is a safety risk from vehicles on the road that haven’t been fixed.”
‘Only with software’
Despite software-related issues in vehicles today, automakers are hiring thousands of software developers and engineers and allocating their resources to this area. They have big expectations. Detroit’s three automakers project between $20 billion and $22.5 billion in annual revenue from this technology from 30 million to 34 million connected vehicles on the road by 2030.
At the core of that is differentiation — offering features and capabilities that separate a brand or vehicle from its competitors and for which customers are willing to pay. Off-road trail navigation in a Jeep, GM’s Ultra Cruise that’ll enable hands-free driving on all paved roads and live range updates with estimated idle fuel cost savings in a Ford electric vehicle are some examples automakers have shared.
Providing these new abilities often requires automakers to delve deeper into the software system than they historically have. Investments they are making are setting up the infrastructure to do that as well as provide the companies a more rapid response to defects through over-the-air updates and cloud technologies.
“This is why people go deep into the (software) stack, as they want to have this control over the user experience,” said Ondrej Burkacky, senior partner at management consultancy McKinsey & Co. in Munich, Germany. “Because once you basically give that fully away, you lose a very important differentiation factor, and you don’t want to be just the manufacturer of the car.”
GM has been offering subscription services through its OnStar security services business for more than 25 years. It’s already begun installing in its products its new vehicle intelligence platform hardware that connects all of the modules — essentially computers controlling the different parts of the vehicle — to communicate together. Next year, it’ll launch its Ultifi platform — the software that enables that communication.
This will unlock the availability to offer new features as well as update every module over-the-air. A dealer currently has to flash some modules to update them. It also will make deployment of the updates faster and common across all GM vehicles, said Gary Cygan, GM director of software program and solution management.
“Quality and speed are hand-in-hand, right?” Cygan said. “And if you don’t have the right architecture going really fast, you don’t get quality.”
The Ultifi platform will sit below other software in the vehicle’s software stack that developers want to be easily accessible and changeable based on the applications customers want to use. The software below the platform controls the more safety-critical components like braking systems and engine and propulsion control that should be more stable.
“Before we had a platform where we were intentionally separating the stuff that we want stable from the application, a new feature as you added new things, you’re changing parts and pieces of the software all over the place, right?” Cygan said. “That is much, much more difficult to do with high quality than if you’ve got that all locked down and you’re changing software in one place.”
Ford Motor Co. declined to comment for this story. The automaker last year, however, announced the launch of Power-Up, its name for its wireless software update technology that it hopes will save on warranty costs and allow for a greater exchange of data between customers, the company and others with embedded modems. The updates also can provide new features like an embedded, hands-free version of Amazon’s Alexa cloud-based voice service, and BlueCruise, Ford’s active-drive-assist system.
Stellantis, meanwhile, in December shared plans starting in 2024 to replace its Android Auto software stack. It’ll roll out its electrical/electronic and software architecture called STLA Brain. This makes 30 modules in the vehicle updateable over-the-air versus 10 today and connects them to the vehicle’s central computer.
This will enable partnerships like with iPhone contract manufacturer Foxconn Technology Group for Mobile Drive smart cockpits offering custom features and with BMW AG for increasingly automated driving functions called STLA AutoDrive.
“Our strategy is to create a product that can evolve naturally and regularly with real-time personalization, capturing the consumer context and providing value as the customer needs it,” Stellantis’ Chamarthi said. “Only with software is that possible.”