Software testing

Software Glitches Highlight Testing’s Critical Role in the Automotive Industry

Fiat Chrysler, Tesla make headlines after serious software defects prompt recalls

Last Friday, Fiat Chrysler recalled 5.3 million vehicles for a software glitch that could prevent drivers from slowing down while in cruise control. The recall highlights the automotive industry’s increasing reliance on software to run or monitor critical functions.

For Fiat Chrysler, this is just the latest in a spate of recalls affecting other models, including a software issue that caused some Chrysler Pacifica minivans to stall unexpectedly, requiring drivers to turn off and restart the engines to resume driving. According to The New York Times, some drivers reported experiencing stalls in intersections or on highways. Chrysler conducted a full recall of the affected models.

Earlier this month, Consumer Reports declined to recommend Tesla’s new, highly anticipated Model 3 sedan (there were more than 400,000 preorders) because of a software defect. The magazine’s review found a serious safety hazard in testing: The Model 3 took longer to come to a complete stop than any other car on the market. But within a few days, Tesla had rolled out a software update that addressed the problem with the braking system, and Consumer Reports changed its mind and recommended the model.

Consumer Reports’ director of automotive testing, Jake Fisher, told CNBC that he’s never seen a car company fix a major performance problem this fast. This really is an industry first, he said, not only because of the speed at which Tesla released the update but also because of the manner in which it was released. While the Fiat Chrysler recalls required drivers to visit a dealership to get the update, Tesla’s was pushed over the air (OTA).

Modern vehicles run on millions of lines of code that control everything from the stereo and display to the brakes and steering. As Consumer Reports points out, when automakers start pushing OTA updates, any failure could be just as dangerous as if a mechanic made a faulty repair — except that it might affect thousands of vehicles simultaneously. Both GM and Ford have said that by 2020, their new models will be able to accept OTA updates.

These incidents, and the rapid pace at which automotive technology is advancing, highlight the critical importance of software testing for automakers. As software assumes control over an increasing number of critical functions, and as consumer demand for connected cars increases, the potential for software-related defects will broaden at pace. Understanding the risks that increasing connectivity causes – and taking steps to prevent them – will become critical to automakers’ success. Stringent QA will be a non-negotiable for these companies, both to ensure safety and functionality and to preserve their images in the public eye. Last week, we saw just how tenuous the latter can be: Just hours after last week’s Fiat Chrysler recall, shares had already dropped 2 percent.

According to Frost & Sullivan, automotive companies will spend more than $80 billion on IT by 2020, more than doubling the industry’s IT spend five years ago. The researcher says that new business models, growing digitization, increasing automation and a focus on end-to-end security are driving the increase.

The growth is impressive, but even so, it’s clear we’re just scratching the surface of software’s far-reaching impact on the automotive industry. Yesterday, The Verge reported that Google’s self-driving car unit, Waymo, put in an order for 62,000 Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Let’s all hope they’ve got a really solid QA process.