As Automakers Add Technology to Cars, Software Bugs Follow

About six months after Gary Gilpin leased the Subaru outback from a California dealer, the screen went blank and never returned. Mr. Gilpin took the car to the dealer because he thought it would reset quickly.

“It’s been a whole month since I got my car back,” said Mr. Gilpin, who runs a sail boat chartering and brokerage business.

Some people just make a fuss. Mr. Gilpi sued.

He is one of thousands of car owners, encouraged by plaintiffs’ attorneys who have joined a class-action lawsuit accusing carmakers of selling vehicles with defective entertainment and related systems. Their complaints are as varied as they are: screens that freeze, flicker, or darken; Noise that is cut out or unexpectedly explodes at high volume; Backup camera that fails. Problems often involve the way the hardware interacts with Apple’s CarPlay or Google’s Android Auto software, allowing drivers to use their phones to navigate, communicate or listen to music and podcasts.

Bugged car software just seems like an inconvenience. But plaintiffs have successfully argued that a defective dashboard display poses a serious disruption and potential security risk.

Suits are a feature of automakers’ rocky transition to the digital age and their struggle to integrate state-of-the-art technology into vehicles that meet the security needs of smartphones and other electronics. Older line automakers are losing ground against Tesla and other young electric car makers who have placed more emphasis on software. And in their own cars, established automakers are effectively handing over more power to Apple and Google, which dominate the digital world.

So far, the settlements that automakers have had to pay are relatively modest. In 2020, Subaru settled a lawsuit filed by Mr. Gilpin and others; It cost the company an estimated 8 million, including attorney’s fees and an additional two-year warranty protection.

In December, Honda of America and its Acura subsidiary agreed to settle the same class of lawsuits at an estimated 30 million, according to plaintiffs’ lawyers, including extending the warranty system to buyers. Neither Subaru nor Honda admitted any wrongdoing. Honda declined to comment, and Subaru did not respond to requests for comment.

The pattern was set by Ford Motor customers with defects in the Myford Touch system. The automaker settled the lawsuit in 2019 for 17 million without admitting any wrongdoing.

With millions of dollars paid by Toyota and other car makers to injured people with defective airbags, or with software designed to cover up illegal pollution levels, Volkswagen can hardly be compared to the billions paid to car owners.

But the stakes for car makers far outweigh the cost of lawsuits.

As the claims suggest, traditional car makers have struggled to develop navigation systems and other services found in Apple and Google devices. They are also far behind Tesla, which loads a large interactive screen in its car with home-developed software and does not support CarPlay or Android Auto.

Established carmakers have been forced to hand over valuable dashboard real estate to Silicon Valley, targeting consumer anger when something goes wrong – and class-action lawsuits.

Before Big Tech invaded car interiors, automakers were masters of their field, telling suppliers the terms. But Apple and Google command financial resources and software skills that even auto giants can’t match.

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

The clutter of software makers in the car industry will only grow as vehicles become more and more driver-assisted systems and other digital technologies.

Automakers are in a difficult position. They work on timelines that are far from the pace of digital technology. A new vehicle typically takes four years to develop, including rigorous safety testing. Owners often drive the same car for more than a decade, an eternity in the tech world.

Mark Wakefield, co-leader of the automotive and industrial practice at the consulting firm, AlixPartners, said: “The timing of developing vehicles and putting hardware into those vehicles is quite different from window cellphones.” “When the vehicle is complete, it is done. Software is never complete. “

Apple releases the new iPhone almost once a year, and releases newer versions of its operating system more often than Google. Car makers face the almost impossible task of designing entertainment systems that work flawlessly with software and devices that have yet to be invented.

“After each update we receive complaints that CarPlay is not working,” said Serhat Kurt, who manages the website, MacriPorts, which offers advice on how to fix issues with Apple devices.

Mr. Kurt blamed both the car makers and Apple – the car makers “didn’t do very well with the software” and Apple didn’t do enough to make sure the software update worked with older vehicles.

The lawsuits so far have blamed established carmakers, not Apple or Google. Sean Matt, Seattle’s partner at Hagens Burman, the legal firm representing the owners in the lawsuit against Honda, said they could “sympathize with the engineering challenge” that carmakers face in designing a system that works flawlessly with ever-changing smartphone software.

But Mr. Matt added, “They’re giving you a product and saying it will work, and ultimately the responsibility is on them.”

That doesn’t mean Apple and Google are immune. If the Subaru lawsuit had not been settled, there was “a real possibility that they would have been brought in,” said Benjamin Jones, a partner at Pennsylvania firm Chemicals Schwartz Kriner & Donaldson-Smith, who represents the Subaru owners.

Google spokeswoman Sophia Abdirizak said in an email: “Our general practice is to provide manufacturers with adequate instructions before major updates.” She declined to comment further.

Apple, which offers automakers and other software developers a beta version of the iPhone update before their general release, declined to comment.

Such lawsuits are not just a problem for older car manufacturers. Tesla originated in Silicon Valley, and its software is considered more advanced than 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 before 2018 because their touch screens could fail. The defect is also the subject of a class-action lawsuit in which Tesla is contesting an election.

Tesla is able to send software updates to its car over cellular connections, regularly adding features, even to cars that have been on the road for years. Most cars made by older auto companies cannot be updated in the same way remotely.

As established carmakers pack vehicles with more and more technology, defective software lawsuits are likely to continue to build. The Chemicals firm is working on two possible cases based on complaints from car owners, Mr. The lawsuit has not yet been filed, Jones said. It declined to name the automakers, but the firm is advertising on its website for owners of Mazda or Volvo cars whose dashboard screens have frozen or suffered other problems.

Car makers are “getting better at technology,” Mr. Jones said. “But technology is constantly evolving.”

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