Published October 8, 2010, Los Angeles Daily Journal – It’s fascinating when you think about it, but the day has actually arrived where the average commuter car has more software code in it than existed in the Apollo 11 spacecraft that put the first man on the moon. Just how far have we progressed? The Apollo 11 Lunar Module of 40 years ago was run by “top-secret” IBM punch cards that were mated to binary mainframe computers. Today, the average Kia has some 100 million lines of software code running through 70 on-board microprocessors, operating everything from intermittent windshield wipers to regenerative braking systems. And, we’ve not seen anything yet.
Thus far, automotive software applications have mostly been related to either replacing mechanical systems, such as throttle cables and ignition systems, or adding features of obvious convenience, such as entertainment systems and integrated controls. But get ready, because Car 2.0 is coming. Ford has recently announced its partnership with Microsoft to develop the “Hohm Energy Management Application” – a cloud-based system that will seamlessly transfer information between your home and your Ford vehicle. You like syncing between your mobile phone and your desktop? Try syncing between your daily driver and your house. One can imagine the possibilities. Transfer the movies from your home entertainment system to the video screens in the backs of the headrests for the kids; or how about transferring [energy] between your home and your car? It is not that far off.
Tesla has perhaps one of the most intriguing products soon to hit the market. Its touted Model S completely dispenses with traditional controls, dials, knobs and instrument clusters altogether. In their place is a touch screen computer monitor that can not only sync with every mobile application you can think of, but can also be upgraded or reprogrammed remotely. Want to offer consumers the next version of the coolest electronic gadget? Just send out a download for the reprogram. Have a recall notice that you need to get to consumers? No problem, simply send out a message that will display on every on-board monitor until addressed.
We have certainly traveled quite a way since the first on-board computer that was introduced on the 1978 Cadillac to display fuel economy. But, with progress can come challenge, and nowhere is that more apparent than with software applications in automobiles. The world held its breath as engineers peered into Toyota’s maligned runaway car problem, wondering if it could possibly be that the problem was actually caused by a software glitch. The concern had less to do with Toyota, and more to do with the realization that we could have spent the last several years creating technology that we now may not be able to control.
The results for Toyota appear to be inconclusive, and therein lies much of the problem. With software becoming more complex by the minute, detecting problems can prove to be a near impossible task. Consumers may think that the problem is mitigated by requiring automotive manufacturers to adhere to stringent regulations before unleashing their ground breaking software developments on the public; but they would be wrong.
You may be surprised to learn that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the regulatory agency responsible for ensuring motor vehicle safety, does not require the software systems contained in vehicles to meet any specific safety level. It is even more concerning when it is understood that for a current production automobile, about 45 percent of the manufacturing cost is devoted to electronics – systems that are independently made by different subcontractors that are expected to perform properly when combined together in a single automobile.
One may think that the reason the NHTSA does not regulate electronics is because it is unable to do so. But, this too would be incorrect. Other industries have long regulated the development and implementation of software and electronics to ensure that the systems are safe and reliable.
Consider aviation, and the approach taken by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA applies a rigid set of standards to software applications, officially called DO-178B “Software Considerations in Airborne Systems and Equipment Certification.” DO-178B was developed by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics and the European Organization for Civil Aviation Equipment, and has been adopted by the FAA as a guiding document to evaluate software reliability. Part of the program is a safety assessment process and hazard analysis, which examines the effects of a failure condition in the system. If a system fails, what impact will this have on the aircraft; is it simply a matter of consumer inconvenience, or will it threaten the integrity of the aircraft? Before certifying the software for use, the FAA satisfies itself that the software is reliable, and it understands that if there is a malfunction, what the resulting impact will be.
In fairness, one could say that the automobile industry is not an exacting comparison with aviation. After all, Boeing and Airbus aren’t exactly rushing to come out with the newest version of a Facebook application that will integrate with the cockpit. But, the point remains that some type of minimum standards are necessary to prevent a catastrophic event.
In the wake of the Toyota scare, Congress began to vet an auto safety bill that would require brake override systems for all vehicles and provide more funding for NHTSA. However, as the Toyota situation began to fade from recent memory, the urgency of the legislation quelled and the bill is now an item that Congress plans on addressing at a later time. In the interim, one can only hope that the urgency of the legislation is not something that is reignited by yet another catastrophic event.