When Volvo recalled 59,000 vehicles earlier this year, the maker blamed faulty software that could unexpectedly shut off their engines. Soon after, Nissan recalled 47,000 Leaf battery-cars because software glitches could impact braking.
Today's cars routinely pack in more electronic hardware than a typical home or office. It's not unusual to have 100 million or more lines of software code operating all those systems, substantially more than the latest Air Force fighter jets.
But glitches are proving surprisingly common. By one estimate, there's an error in as many as one in every five lines of code, something that can prove not just inconvenient but potentially deadly for car buyers — and costly and embarrassing for carmakers.
A new study by J.D. Power and Associates found that the number of complaints about automotive software problems has been rising at a double-digit annual rate, increasing 22 percent last year alone.
"Consumer complaints are the canaries in the coal mine for automobile manufacturers when it comes to anticipating future recalls and longer-term customer satisfaction," said Renee Stephens, vice president of U.S. automotive research at J.D. Power. "Software-related problems have become much more prevalent and, if not addressed, could begin to erode consumer trust in new automotive technology."
Microprocessors today run just about every aspect of a vehicle's operations: engines, brakes, suspension and safety systems. Modern vehicles also come loaded with an assortment of high-tech infotainment systems. And the trend is accelerating as the industry moves rapidly towards an era when autonomous vehicles will be able to drive without human intervention.
But experts warn that rising recalls and consumer complaints need to be taken as a warning. The industry needs to find ways to track problems more quickly, preferably before balky software can cause an accident, said Anthony Foxx, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. And then, manufacturers need to find ways to fix those problems quickly and with minimum disruption for consumers.
According to the new Power survey, there have been 189 recalls linked to software problems over the past five years, 141 of which could actually cause a crash because of malfunctioning vehicle or powertrain controls.
While the latest study has generated some controversy over its methodology, there is widespread agreement that software errors are a major problem. RedBend, an Israeli-based start-up recently purchased by electronics giant Harman International Industries, contends that 6.4 percent of the recalls ordered by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2015 were software-related.
In all, according to RedBend, 6.4 percent of last year's recalls were "software related," a problem that cost makers $440 million to fix.
That's just part of the problem, however. Generally, only safety-related issues lead to recalls. But other studies have shown that balky technology — things like navigation systems and voice control — have become the single-biggest source of consumer complaints, far exceeding traditional, mechanical problems such as defective transmissions or wind noise.
It doesn't help, RedBend estimates, that there are flaws in anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent of the lines of code in a typical car.
Such issues, according to both Power and California consulting firm AutoPacific, Inc., typically lead to lower owner loyalty. In other words, an owner who is thwarted every time she tries to enter an address into a navigation system is more likely to switch brands when it's time to trade in.
Ford Motor Co. saw its scores in the much-quoted Power Initial Quality Survey plunge during the first half of this decade, largely due to problems with its Sync infotainment system. At one point, the maker was forced to send out USB drives with software updates. Buyers nervous about this do-it-yourself solution were able to get free updates at Ford and Lincoln brand dealers.
But an alternate method many automakers are planning to adopt lifts a page from the cellphone industry and could make life simpler for vehicle owners. Tesla Motors is already using so-called over-the-air, or OTA, updates on its Models S and X. A number of other makers plan to add similar features over the next several years.
"Tesla has changed the game," said Roger Ordman, the marketing chief for RedBend, which handles remote upgrades for tech firms like Apple, and which is hoping to become a leader in the field of automotive over-the-air updates, as well.
Not everyone is comfortable with OTA, however. General Motors' global product chief Mark Reuss prefers to limit over-the-air updates to non-critical vehicle systems, such as infotainment, to limit the possibility hackers could use the radio waves to gain control of a vehicle.
Cybersecurity became a major concern when, a year ago, two security experts hacked into a Jeep's software, taking control while it was driving, sending it into a ditch with a journalist from Wired magazine sitting inside.
NHTSA Administrator Mark Rosekind has called cybersecurity "one of the biggest issues" facing the auto industry, and one that will become even more important in the coming era of autonomous vehicles.
Along with software glitches, the threat of hackers underscores the challenges the industry faces.
Today's cars are no longer just mechanical devices. They simply can't operate without microprocessors and the software needed to run those systems. But unless and until automakers can address those glitches, software will become an increasing source of frustration — and a costly one, at that.