Jan 31, 2024 - Technology

Buggy software is dogging the switch to electric cars

Illustration of a car with a front windscreen that looks like a browser window with an error message

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

General Motors is racing to diagnose and fix software issues that have caused flickering screens, looping error messages and glitchy charging in some of its most important new electric vehicles (EVs).

The big picture: Similar problems are plaguing the entire auto industry as vehicles morph into battery-powered "supercomputers on wheels."

Why it matters: Software bugs on your phone or laptop are an annoyance. A software snafu in a car isn't just aggravating, it could be life-threatening.

  • Cars are exponentially more complex than smartphones, and software updates can have unintended consequences that affect other systems.

What's happening: Multiple carmakers, including GM, Volkswagen, Volvo Cars and Polestar, have delayed new EVs while they rethink their approach to software development.

  • U.S. safety regulators in December pushed Tesla to recall about 2 million vehicles to update its Autopilot assisted-driving software after a series of deadly accidents.
  • And a recent Rivian software update meant to improve a door-locking feature accidentally "bricked" vehicles' infotainment systems.

Catch up fast: Before EVs, specialized software was typically embedded into hundreds of small computers controlling individual features on cars, like power windows or electronic stability control.

  • EVs are far more streamlined, with designed-from-scratch electrical architectures and a handful of centralized computers controlling everything from vehicle functions to infotainment systems.

The challenge: Most traditional automakers don't have the required software skills and are struggling to reorient their businesses around this approach, Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst at Guidehouse Insights, tells Axios.

Zoom in: GM is a prime example of the software headaches automakers are facing.

  • It stopped selling its new Chevrolet Blazer EV in December after early owners and reviewers encountered software issues and other problems.
  • GM's software and services team, led by former Apple exec Mike Abbott, is working "with a huge sense of urgency" to get the Blazer EV back on sale, CEO Mary Barra told investors Tuesday during a fourth-quarter earnings call.
  • "We disappointed these customers, and we know it," Barra said. "We are determined to get the software right, and we will."

What they're saying: Barra described "several organizational and process improvements" in GM's software and services team, including a new software quality division and revamped testing and validation procedures.

  • That group has been quality-auditing the Blazer EV and other delayed models in GM's pipeline to root out coding problems, a company spokesperson said.

Yes, but: It's still a work in progress, Barra noted.

  • GM postponed an investor update previously scheduled for March in part to give the software team more time to complete its work.

Of note: GM's software-related problems come on top of battery manufacturing bottlenecks that have already delayed its long-anticipated EV rollout.

  • New automated equipment to build battery modules faster should be installed by midyear, Barra said.
  • The delay has been expensive, however, with GM recording a $1.7 billion accounting charge tied to the high cost of stockpiled battery cells, which it won't be able to fully recover.

What to watch: Barra says GM's EV outlook is better for the second half of the year, with the planned increase in production of current models, including the Cadillac Lyriq, GMC Hummer EV, Chevy Blazer EV and Chevy Silverado EV work truck.

  • Delayed vehicles — including the Chevy Equinox EV, Silverado EV RST, GMC Sierra EV Denali and Cadillac Escalade IQ — should hit showrooms later this year too.
  • With production increasing and the cost of battery cells decreasing, GM expects its EVs to become profitable in the latter half of 2024, Barra said.

The bottom line: Legacy automakers are great at hardware — it's software that's the challenge.

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