As Automakers Add Technology to Cars, Software Bugs Follow

About six months after Gary Gilpin rented a Subaru Outback from a California dealer, the screen went blank and no longer turned on. Mr. Gilpin drove the car to the dealer for what he believed would be a quick reset.

“It took a whole month before I returned the car,” said Mr. Gilpin, who runs the sailboat charter and brokerage business.

Some people would just get angry. Mr. Gilpin sued.

He is one of thousands of car owners who are encouraged by the plaintiffs’ lawyers, who have joined the collective lawsuits accusing automakers of selling cars with faulty entertainment and related systems. Their complaints are both numerous and varied: screens that freeze, blink, or darken; a sound that breaks or suddenly explodes at high volume; backup chambers that fail. Often the problems are related to how the hardware interacts with Apple CarPlay or Google’s Android Auto software, which allows drivers to use their phones to navigate, communicate or listen to music and podcasts.

Buggy software for cars may seem like a simple inconvenience. But the plaintiffs have successfully argued that a faulty dashboard display is a serious distraction and a potential hazard.

Suits are a symptom of the difficult transition of automakers in the digital age and their struggle to integrate the latest technology into vehicles that must meet safety requirements that smartphones and other electronics do not meet. Older automakers are giving way to Tesla and other young electric car makers, which have put much more emphasis on software. And in their own cars, well-known automakers are actually transferring more power to Apple and Google, which dominate the digital world.

So far, the calculations that had to pay automakers are relatively modest. In 2020, Subaru upheld a lawsuit filed by Mr. Gilpin and others; it cost the company about $ 8 million, including attorney’s fees and an additional two years of warranty protection.

In December, Honda of America and its subsidiary Acura agreed to settle a similar collective lawsuit, according to the plaintiffs’ attorneys, at about $ 30 million, including extending the warranty on systems the buyers complained about were flawed. Neither Subaru nor Honda have admitted wrongdoing. Honda declined to comment, and Subaru did not respond to requests for comment.

The case, which set a precedent, was filed by Ford Motor customers who complained about defects in the MyFord Touch system. The automaker upheld the lawsuit in 2019 for $ 17 million without admitting any wrongdoing.

These amounts are hardly comparable to the hundreds of millions of dollars that Toyota and other automakers paid to people affected by faulty airbags, or the billions that Volkswagen paid to car owners with software designed to mask illegal levels of pollution.

But rates for automakers go far beyond the cost of litigation.

According to lawsuits, traditional carmakers have struggled to develop navigation systems and other services that work just as well as Apple and Google devices. They also lag far behind Tesla, which downloads self-developed software to large interactive screens in its cars and does not support CarPlay or Android Auto.

Carmakers have been forced to cede valuable real estate dashboards to Silicon Valley, while remaining the object of consumer anger – and class action lawsuits – if something goes wrong.

Before Big Tech broke into the car showroom, automakers were the rulers of their kingdom, dictating terms to suppliers. But Apple and Google enjoy financial resources and software experience that even auto giants can’t match.

“The game has changed completely,” said Axel Schmidt, senior executive at Accenture, which manages the automotive division of the consulting firm. Large automakers, he said, “are not used to dealing with partners who are much stronger and bigger than themselves.”

The impact of software vendors on the automotive industry will only grow as vehicles incorporate more and more driver assistance systems and other digital technologies.

Automakers are in a difficult position. They work on deadlines that don’t match the speed of digital technology. The development of a new vehicle typically takes four years, including time-consuming safety tests. Owners have often driven the same car for more than a decade, which is an eternity in the world of technology.

“The window of time to develop vehicles and install equipment in these vehicles is quite different than for a mobile phone,” said Mark Wakefield, co-head of automotive and industrial practice at consulting firm AlixPartners. “When a car is made, it is made. Software is never made. ”

Apple introduces the new iPhone about once a year and releases new versions of its operating system even more often than Google. Automakers face the daunting task of developing entertainment systems that work seamlessly with software and devices that have not yet been invented.

“After each update, we receive complaints that CarPlay is not working,” said Serhat Kurt, who runs the macReports website, which provides tips for troubleshooting Apple devices.

Mr Kurt blamed both carmakers and Apple, the automakers, for “not being very good with software” and Apple for not doing enough to make software updates work with older cars.

Well-known carmakers, not Apple or Google, are still to blame in the courts. Sean Matt, a partner in Seattle at law firm Hagens Berman, which represented owners in a lawsuit against Honda, said he “can sympathize with the engineering problem” faced by carmakers in developing systems that work seamlessly with ever-changing smartphone software .

But Mr Matt added: “They give you the product and say it will work and ultimately the burden rests on them.”

That doesn’t mean Apple and Google are insured. If Subaru’s lawsuit had not been settled, “there would have been a real chance that they could have been brought in,” said Benjamin Jones, a partner at Pennsylvania-based Chimicles Schwartz Kriner & Donaldson-Smith, which represented Subaru owners.

Google spokeswoman Sofia Abdyryzak said in an email: “Our common practice is to inform manufacturers sufficient notice before major updates.” She declined to comment further.

Apple, which provides automakers and other software developers with beta versions of iPhone updates before their general release, declined to comment.

Such lawsuits are a problem not only for old car manufacturers. Tesla came from Silicon Valley, and its software is considered much more advanced than the software of the Detroit giants. But last year, under pressure from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Tesla recalled more than 100,000 S and X models built by 2018 because their touch screens could fail. The defect is also the subject of a class action lawsuit that Tesla is challenging.

Tesla can send software updates to its cars over cellular, regularly adding features, even to cars that have been on the road for years. The vast majority of cars manufactured by older car companies cannot be updated remotely in the same way.

As well-known car manufacturers are replenishing their vehicles with more and more new technology, defective software is likely to continue to cause lawsuits. Chimicles is working on two possible cases based on complaints from car owners, Mr Jones said, although lawsuits have not yet been filed. He declined to name the automakers, but the firm advertises on its website owners of Mazda or Volvo cars whose dashboard screens have frozen or suffered other problems.

Carmakers are “improving in technology,” Mr Jones said. “But technology keeps evolving.”

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