Last week was an extremely slow week with regard to the number of IT-related problems, snafus, and bugs reported. So we decided to dedicate this week’s IT Hiccups to the increasingly common occurrence of an automotive recall to fix a vehicle’s electronics or software.
As reported by Reuters, Chrysler announced last week that it was recalling a total of 25 250 Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango SUVs from model years 2012 and 2013 to improve anti-lock brake pedal feel “during certain aggressive braking maneuvers.” According to the Chrysler, a supplier raised an issue with a part that supports Ready Alert Braking, a safety system that primes a car’s brakes in anticipation of a driver making an emergency stop.
Chrysler literature says that Ready Alert Braking “anticipates situations when the driver may initiate an emergency brake stop and uses the electronic stability control (ESC) pump to set brake pads against rotors in order to decrease the time required for full brake application.”
The LA Times reports that while the brake worked as designed and was in compliance with safety requirements, customers were complaining about an “odd feeling in the brake pedal” that was traced to factory settings that overly restricted the flow of brake fluid. A software update was being issued, Chrysler stated, “to improve the flow and restore appropriate pedal feel.”
Chrysler also announced that it is recalling 19 500 Fiat 500L cars from the 2014 model year to fix an issue affecting their automated dual‐clutch transmission. The company says that car owners complained that the vehicles would not shift out of park quickly or readily into the gear selected by the driver. Apparently, the problem is tied to a specific microcontroller component in the transmission that fails to operate correctly in extreme temperatures. A software update fixes the problem in all but about 200 vehicles; in those vehicles, a shift-module replacement may be necessary to ensure hardware-software compatibility, the company said.
Neither of the recalls were in response to reported accidents or injuries.
There was word of another vehicle software issue last week, but it affected only one rather special vehicle. According to ESPN, an engine software programming problem affected Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull Formula 1 racing car during qualifying for yesterday’s Australian Grand Prix. The team said that the problem “meant he was down on power with extremely poor drivability,” and was the reason Vettel only qualified for 12th place on the starting grid, his poorest starting position since 2012.
Apparently, the software issue wasn’t completely fixed before the starting flag was waved; Vettel—who had won nine consecutive F1 races—dejectedly retired from the race after only a few laps when he continued to sense a lack of engine power.
Last week also saw a story published by the London Telegraph claiming that “increasingly complicated electronics in cars have prompted a surge in expensive breakdowns.” Based on data gleaned from 50 000 insurance policies from Warranty Direct for vehicles three years or older, the Telegraph says “the number of electrical faults in cars has risen by two thirds over the past five years, with repair bills rising by one third.” On average, nearly one in four drivers will experience an electronics-related problem over the course of a year, compared with only one in ten drivers five years ago, the newspaper said. The average cost for fixing a problem has also climbed from £221 to £291 over the same period.
The Telegraph data indicate that the Subaru had the fewest electronic issues while Renault had the most. However, the next least reliable manufacturers listed were Bentley and Porsche, apparently because their vehicles are typically fitted with the latest electronic systems. The average repair cost for an electronic problem was reported as £670 in a Bentley and £757 in a Porsche, but I suspect the owners of these luxury cars are far less concerned about the cost of repairs as much as their frequency.
Finally, the GM recall of 1.6 million Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac G5 vehicles for an ignition switch problem that has resulted in at least a dozen deaths continues to make headlines. Regulators are now investigating whether the issue has in fact resulted in several hundred deaths, and there is concern that the problem involves more GM vehicles than those currently recalled. The U.S. Congress is looking to schedule hearings into the recall while the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether GM is criminally liable for not disclosing the ignition switch problem earlier. No doubt, pointed questions will also be raised during the congressional hearings into the excuses the U.S. National Highway Transportation Administration is giving for failing to launch a full scale investigation even after receiving 260 complaints of vehicles suddenly shutting down.
In Other News …
Photo: Chrysler Group
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.