A Costly Problem

By Mel Duvall  |  Posted 2005-08-04 Print this article Print

Strong sales of Toyota's Prius hybrid vehicles could be threatened by software malfunctions that leave drivers stuck in traffic.

In fact, software and electronics-related defects are now believed to be responsible for as much as one-third of all warranty claims, says Stavros Stefanis, director of IBM's Embedded Systems Lifecycle Management practice, which is developing software for the automotive industry. "It's a big headache for the automakers," he says. "One of the main causes is that there are no standards [for software and electronics design]."

"The industry is working to reduce and standardize design, but we're a long way away from that," he adds.

The average passenger car now has about 30 to 40 microprocessors controlling everything from air conditioning and audio and video systems, to critical functions such as braking systems and air bags. More expensive automobiles, such as those equipped with global positioning systems, satellite radios, "memory" seats that automatically adjust to the preferred position of an individual driver, and dashboard computer consoles, can have more than 100 microprocessors.

And all of those fancy gadgets and gizmos require software. The average car today contains about 35 million lines of code, according to Stefanis, a figure that will grow substantially over the next few years. In fact, by 2010 IBM estimates that 90% of the new innovations packed into vehicles will come from software, such as the ability for a car to squeeze itself into a tight parking space. Toyota is already offering such a feature on the Prius in Japan as a $2,200 option. The Intelligent Parking Assist system uses a combination of sensors to detect how close the car is to the curb and neighboring vehicles, a tiny camera on the car's rear, and software to pull off the parking magic.

Software is helping vehicles run better and achieve higher gas mileage; it has also improved on-board entertainment and made driving safer. Stefanis says vehicles will soon come standard with systems to prevent fender-benders and keep drowsy drivers from veering into oncoming traffic. Here again, Toyota is ahead of the curve, offering features in its vehicles in Japan that automatically tighten seat belts and give brakes extra stopping power when sensors detect an imminent collision.

But the road is not without bumps.

When the NHTSA investigation into the Prius was announced on May 31, the agency indicated it had received from owners 33 complaints of alleged engine stalling. But in a letter sent on June 8 by Jeffrey Quandt, chief of the agency's Office of Defect Investigation, to Christopher Tinto, director of Toyota Technical and Regulatory Affairs, the agency reported that it had received an additional 34 complaints. Of the total of 67 complaints, 57 are related to the 2004 model year Prius and 10 to the 2005.

"Over 85% of the complainants reported that the vehicle stalled while driving between 30 and 65 [miles per hour]," Quandt says. "All complainants reported that the engine shut down suddenly without warning, and at least 50% of the complainants reported that when the engine shut off, the vehicle would not restart and had to be towed."

If Toyota cannot convince the NHTSA that the problems are isolated and do not pose a safety hazard, the agency will be forced to issue a recall—a much more costly and embarrassing option than issuing a service bulletin. With service bulletins, dealerships are instructed to fix vehicles, by adjusting or installing new parts, or reprogramming software, when the owners bring their vehicles in for maintenance. Under recalls, manufacturers must reach out to vehicle owners, usually through written notices and advertisements, and pay for all necessary repairs.

  • Story Guide:
    Software Bugs Threaten Toyota Hybrids
  • A Costly Problem
  • Computer on Wheels
  • Toyota Motor Sales USA at a Glance

    Next page: Computer on Wheels

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    Contributing Editor
    Mel Duvall is a veteran business and technology journalist, having written for a variety of daily newspapers and magazines for 17 years. Most recently he was the Business Commerce Editor for Interactive Week, and previously served as a senior business writer for The Financial Post.


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