The tale is as old as time. The hubris of the haughty hare loses to the steadfast rigor of the ridiculously-slow, almost laughable tortoise. If endowed with incredible speed, no need to focus on the goal since overcoming any shortcomings will be easy. Yes, “The Tortoise And The Hare” is a fairy tale, but history is filled with overly confident favorites to win who fail due to sophomoric certainty, e.g., the 1985 undefeated Bears lose to the underdog Dolphins, Hillary Clinton loses the 2016 Presidential election to Donald Trump despite a late-October 14-point lead.
The latest protagonists are technology leaders ready to wirelessly reflash any software in the vehicle, as necessary. Yes, new United Nations regulations require this phone-esque “you have a new version to download” enabler be implemented on vehicles sold across the world for the sake of patching cybersecurity defects, but there are nonetheless both tortoises and hares in this race to mandated certification. The automotive hares are mostly innovative technology start-ups who began building their systems upon a cellular architecture and have been downloading updated versions for years. Huge lead. Way better safety. Right?
In the past several years, there has been an alarming number of manufacturers, suppliers and pundits who have transitioned to the hare mindset. For instance, Carolyn Fortuna wrote an article for CleanTechnica.com entitled “Is ‘Recall’ Really The Right Word In The Era Of Auto Over-The-Air Updates?” where she questioned, “With so many automakers now sending OTA updates, isn’t it time to replace our tendency to focus on the negative connotations associated with a “recall?” For those pedantically consider the wording, it certainly appears misleading. As defined by the American Society for Quality, the word “recall” fundamentally involves “… the act of officially summoning someone or something back to its place of origin.”
However, NHTSA and other worldwide regulatory bodies are clear about what constitutes a recall: “The remedy required when a manufacturer or NHTSA determines that a vehicle, equipment, car seat, or tire creates an unreasonable safety risk or fails to meet minimum safety standards.” In other words, you and your family are driving an unsafe product, and new technology makes it more efficient to eradicate what should never have been sold to you.
But Fortuna’s confusion is not alone. In response to a February tweet suggesting there should be terminology introduced to differentiate between recalls and software updates, Elon Musk stated “Definitely. The word ‘recall’ for an over-the-air software update is anachronistic and just flat wrong!” And an automotive executive at a leading telematics supplier recently argued on social media that “Consumers only care about recalls when it affects the availability of the product. OTA upgrades make this painless (my phone did one last night, which I noticed this morning). Car companies can do this too. Tesla definitely has. And while they might have a lot of recalls for software, I’ll bet their customers hardly notice it. [Other] cars and trucks will get here soon, or they’ll get smaller, because the perceived quality will be in the dumper.”
And so the hare naps on quality and safety thinking [s]he can arise later, erase any mistakes made earlier in the race, and still beat the laughable tortoises. Unfortunately, this ongoing Beta testing means more safety issues in customers’ hands. For instance, per a 2023 study by iSeeCars, extrapolations of recalls per vehicle “… projected Tesla to have the most recalls over the next 30 years, with all four of the brand’s current models appearing in the [worst] five spots.” Conversely, Mercedes-Benz has nine models amongst the least-recalled.
Spoiler Alert: the solution isn’t just nomenclature.
The robust solution should be allowing well-conceived, well-tested products to market after confirming their reliability. This involves well-proven methodologies that require rigorous, boring, tortoise-esque engineering.
However, in this agile age, this does not marry well with the ever-changing marketplace and the need for quick pivots in product enhancements. If a Chief Engineer awaits a fully fleshed-out technology before releasing it to market, [s]he might as well flush it out. Outdated. Poorly aligned.
And so, oxymoronically, the software updates are the enablers to keeping the business afloat. As stated well by Ola Källenius, Mercedes-Benz’s CEO, in a Decoder podcast last July, “In the past, when you bought your car and drove off the lot, it was the peak technology of that product. From that point forward, it started to age. In the case of a Mercedes, it ages like a French wine, so it could also get better with time. Now, when you drive off the lot, you don’t reach peak technology, because we can send more technology to you after the purchase.” New functionality must be developed incrementally with the appropriate rigor and released only when ready. The over-the-air enabler must be seen as the pathway towards new enhancements rather than spackling over accidentally-released defects.
The tricky part: the carrot must be winning the race to new robust technology rather than sleeping on safety.