A Worldwide Recall

By Deborah Gage Print this article Print

Dishwashers, automobiles and other products are increasingly driven by software. But digits don't always do a better job. Where do you turn when your appliance's software goes south?

A Worldwide Recall

Gary Conley, a retired executive in Silicon Valley, is now driving his second BMW 745i. But it's not because the first one worked that well.

His first car had so many problems that BMW bought it back last July. This buy-back followed a worldwide recall in May of 15,000 7-series cars, and a second recall in July of 286 vehicles by BMW Korea. The Korea Times cited a software bug in the electronic management unit of the vehicle's fuel pump that could make the engine stall. BMW spokesman Gordon Keil says certain cars stalled if the fuel tank was below 1/3, although this was not a problem that Conley ever reported.

Conley says his second car works better than his first one. For example, when it creeps along the road, it does not automatically brake without using the brake lights, as the first one was prone to do. But it still has intermittent problems that BMW can't reproduce or fix. The voice activation system sometimes fails, the transmission slips, the phone may fail to power up, and the iDrive settings have spontaneously disappeared and switched to metric units.

Indeed, Conley became so frustrated with BMW that he posted videos of his errant car, along with his most recent repair records, on the Web. (Click here for a collection of several of these links.) Out of 24 problems cited by Conley in December, his dealer was able to find and fix only three of them, despite help from U.S. headquarters in New Jersey.

"BMW tried to do too many things at once with this car, and they underestimated the software problem," says Conley, who built test equipment for semiconductors as the CEO of EPRO Corp., which sold to Credence Corp. of Fremont, CA, in 1995. "Only two-thirds of hardware has been unleashed by software. There are so many predecessors and dependencies within software that it's like spaghetti-ware. It's not that easy to get all these little components to plug and play."

Conley's situation may be unusual, but not unique. "About a month after I took the car, my iDrive system totally failed," says Ron Burke, a partner in the law firm of Brand Brand & Burke in New York City. "This left me able to drive the car, but unable to operate the radio, telephone or navigation system. BMW explained that it would take a long time to fix it because only a few people were qualified to address the problem. But they did fix it and it's worked ever since."

BMW's Keil says the company has sold over 22,000 of the 745's—a 64% increase over the previous 7-series—and has many happy customers. He says that BMW will work with Conley until he, too, is happy, although he questions whether some of Conley's problems could be solved if Conley had better instruction on how to use the car. For example, Keil says, the car's instrument clusters will reset themselves if the battery is low. Keil also says BMW has done "extensive testing" of the 745's.

Auto industry expert Dennis Virag, president of the Automotive Consulting Group Inc., says the problem is not customer ignorance, but industry carelessness. In the race to add glitzy amenities like navigation, Virag says, auto manufacturers are contracting out the development of immature and faulty software. "The auto industry is highly regulated, and these are not mission-critical systems," he says. "But companies like Microsoft can't do to the auto industry what they did to the PC industry. You can't play Russian Roulette every time you stick the key into the ignition."

This article was originally published on 2003-01-16
Senior Writer
Based in Silicon Valley, Debbie was a founding member of Ziff Davis Media's Sm@rt Partner, where she developed investigative projects and wrote a column on start-ups. She has covered the high-tech industry since 1994 and has also worked for Minnesota Public Radio, covering state politics. She has written freelance op-ed pieces on public education for the San Jose Mercury News, and has also won several national awards for her work co-producing a documentary. She has a B.A. from Minnesota State University.

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