Software Bugs Prius and Other Cars

Thirty-two percent of auto warranty claims in the United States are for software or electronics-related issues.

Published: 06-Jun-2005

The software glitch that has caused some Toyota Prius hybrids to suddenly stall casts a spotlight on a broader problem: Cars have computers, lots of them, and computers can crash.

Automakers spend $2 billion to $3 billion a year fixing software problems, said Stavros Stefanis, an automotive software specialist at IBM Corp. The typical passenger car has 70 or more tiny but powerful computers that control audio systems, air-conditioning, brakes, air bags and scores of other tasks.

And the systems are complex: Software for the average car can have more than 35 million lines of code, 100 times or more the amount needed for a full-color, action- and sound-packed interactive computer game.

The fuel-stingy hybrids, which need to control separate gas and electric power sources, are even more complex. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported Wednesday it is investigating 33 complaints of Priuses stalling or stopping for no apparent reason, sometimes at high speed. Toyota Motor Corp. said the problem stemmed from a software bug in the computer system.

There also have been consumer complaints about Mazda's new RX-8 sports car. The software controlling fuel injection was flooding the engine - but only on cars in cold-weather states. "Every car company is doing regular updates of its operating software" to get rid of glitches, said Mazda spokesman Jeremy Barnes. Mazda developed a software fix for the RX-8 that has been installed in about 3,000 vehicles. "I wouldn't be surprised if every single carmaker hasn't had an electronics issue with every single model at some point," Barnes said.

Repair data seem to bear that out - 32 percent of auto warranty claims in the United States are for software or electronics-related issues, Stefanis said.

BMW's iDrive, a sophisticated computerized joystick that controls lights, navigation, audio and scores of functions, was plagued by software glitches when it premiered in 2002. BMW had to install numerous upgrades to get the system working smoothly.

DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes-Benz line also has experienced electronic bugs. As a result, the German carmaker's reliability has fallen dramatically in recent years, with Mercedes getting bad reviews for its electrical problems in Consumer Reports' surveys.

Some owners of late-model Mercedes-Benz E-Class cars have complained online recently about software glitches affecting their electronically controlled automatic transmissions.

Mercedes has acknowledged the problems, but like other carmakers it points out that automotive computers must work in conditions that would send the typical laptop or desktop computer into meltdown. The systems are jolted in rear-end freeway crashes, bounced over potholes at 60 mph, subject to extreme heat on summer drives through deserts and to extreme cold on ski trips.

"We probably should be shocked that there are so few problems" with electronics, said Kevin Smith, editorial director of Edmunds.com. A chat room on the automotive information site was home to a string of complaints that first drew attention to the Prius' stalling problem in some 2004 and 2005 models. Toyota said it would collect data on the problems to see whether there was something that could lead to a fix.

There's no doubt about the popularity of hybrids, though. Toyota announced it would add a Camry hybrid sedan to its lineup next year, to be built in the United States.

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