Volkswagen’s E-Car Rollout Slips on Software

The all-electric ID.3 is the first in a company-wide array of cars to use a new, unified electronic architecture

3 min read

Photograph of the Volkswagen ID.3 in motion
Photo: Volkswagen

Today Volkswagen’s European customers will be able to make binding preorders for one of the 30,000 limited 1st Edition ID.3 fully-electric compact cars. It’s the first fruit of the company’s EUR 60 billion strategy to become the world’s dominant manufacturer of all-electric and hybrid vehicles. 

Customers who opt for early delivery can expect the cars as early as September. They had expected to take delivery this summer, but software problems delayed the rollout. In replacing the multiple electric architecture VW currently uses with one new architecture, VW joins the list of old-line manufacturers that have discovered that simplified software can be hard to design

The problems came to light late last year when the German business publication Manager Magazin reported that VW was struggling to get its new vehicle software and systems architecture to operate properly. Up to 20,000 ID.3 vehicles were predicted to need software updates post-production, it reported. However, VW insisted that software problems were not going to delay the summer 2020 launch.

Problems continued into the first quarter. VW insiders told the German magazine the architecture had been developed “too hastily.” Test drivers were reporting up to 300 errors per day, and more than 10,000 technicians had been mobilized to fix them. Systems and software integration, along with proper event timing, seemed to be some of the problems’ causes. Even VW had to admit at the time that “things are not going great.”

Even now, customers who decide to take delivery of 1st Edition ID.3 vehicles in September will be missing two digital functions, the App Connect function and the distance feature in the head-up display. They’ll be updated in early 2021. 

The delayed launch of the ID.3 was one reason why VW’s board replaced Herbert Diess as chief executive of the VW brand last week. He will still be chief executive of the VW group, however.

The software problems should come as no surprise, because VW has taken a very ambitious approach. As reported in AutoNews (subscription required), VW chose to supplant its eight legacy architectures with a single architecture and an associated operating system based on three powerful computers, executing software developed in-house. The system orchestrates all things digital in the vehicle, which used to require 70 or more electronic control modules. 

Traditionally, the software for the electronic control modules had been developed mainly by VW’s suppliers. However, last year VW told them that it would be the prime software developer for all of its vehicles; it spun off an organization called Car.Software to do so. That organization is expected to hire another 5,000 or more digital experts on top of the initial 3,000 to develop and maintain the software used across all VW brands.

In addition, the software operating system needed network capable so software could be updated via VW’s automotive cloud, which the company is developing together with Microsoft. Such over-the-air updating was pioneered by Tesla, whose entire software/system architectural approach VW has made clear it is emulating.

Furthermore, VW has developed a dedicated chassis platform that it calls the modular electric drive matrix (MEB). The main point is to let VW quickly develop a wide range of electric vehicles in a short time, at an affordable cost. It should also help VW manage the increasing complexity of the software it uses to control the engine and drivetrain in internal combustion vehicles, which it must do to meet ever more stringent EU environmental regulations. 

Whether VW will navigate all the technical, managerial and organization changes this software initiative imposes remains to be seen. It’s an old-line car company trying to build the new thing—computers on wheels.  One thing is certain: It is spending a lot of money to make it happen. 

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