What if the wasn’t the auto industry’s best solution to the chip shortage simply to make more chips? Suppose we instead got a handle on what you might call “feature bloat” – the tendency, fueled by sales competition, to coat new cars with as much technology as possible?
Polls show consumers want – and expect – their next car to be loaded with great features, a demand that is driving the current bloat. CES 2022, which wrapped up this week, gives a glimpse of what the future car might contain. Bosch said it expects double-digit annual growth in automotive software through 2030; Panasonic introduced an augmented reality head-up display with eye-tracking, as well as the ELS Studio 3D 1000-watt audio system and 25 speakers. BMW has unveiled future technology that will allow owners to change the exterior color of their cars and display digital art inside, not to mention a 31-inch rear cinema screen with built-in Amazon Fire TV.
And that’s just a small sample of the automotive technology on display at CES 2022.
But if this technology is unreliable – as some of them have proven – then it is not a victory for consumers. Meanwhile, the reality of the market has created a collision for buyers in the field: higher prices and uneven availability of some of the features they say they want the most.
“We don’t have a shortage of chips; we have software overload, ”said Mike Juran, CEO and co-founder of Altia, which provides graphical user interface design and tools to many automakers. “There is too much unnecessary software out there. “
Take the Chevrolet Volt. The plug-in hybrid had over 10 million lines of code when it was introduced for the 2011 model year; today’s mid-to-high range vehicles have something like 100 million lines, said Michael Hill, vice president of engineering at Altia.
“It’s at the level you might have seen in a jet fighter 10 or 15 years ago,” Hill told TechCrunch. “And there is no such thing as bug free software.”
The bad news for consumers: feature bloat is inevitable and getting worse.
“Cars today are loaded with features that consumers don’t necessarily want or demand,” Jake Fisher, senior director of automotive testing at Consumer Reports, told TechCrunch.
According to Fisher, CR’s 2021 Automatic Reliability Report found that premium electric SUVs are among the least reliable vehicles.
“And it’s not because their powertrains are problematic,” Fisher said. “Instead, automakers saw an opening with early EV users to pack cars with all the technology they could offer. They try to differentiate the product and justify the high cost. And that results in cars that are not very reliable.
Buggy software caused by inefficiency and coding issues is driven by a change – or more precisely, acceleration – in the vehicle’s development cycle, according to Jason Williamson, vice president of marketing at Altia.
“People are used to seeing new phones every year and automakers are trying to keep pace with consumer electronics,” Williamson said. “They are pushing to develop completely new cars in two years or less. And that means using building blocks that may be meant for laptops and not necessarily tailor-made for automotive applications. “
It’s not just expensive electric vehicles that are enticing consumers with the technology; this happens in many mid and high end product lines.
“This is more of a feature bloat than software bloat,” said Sam Abuelsamid, senior research analyst for e-mobility at Guidehouse Insights. “The software is only there to make all the features work, and do we really need 30-way electrically adjustable seats with five massage options? Or sequential taillights, multi-zone automatic climate control, and audio systems with concert hall and studio settings? The insatiable desire to outdo the competition is what drives this.
The crucial point for car manufacturers
Automakers who choose the all-tech-is-good-tech option avoid the more delicate, but ultimately smarter, approach.
“The hard part is figuring out what the feature set should be and sticking to it,” said Mike Bell, senior vice president of digital at Lucid Group. “It may be easier to say, ‘We’re not sure what we’re doing, so we’re just going to throw out the whole kitchen sink. The smart approach is to decide what customers actually want to do, and then figure out how to give them the best experience. There shouldn’t be seven ways to do something.
Bell spent nearly 17 years at Apple and recruited part of its Lucid technical team there. He said one source of the problem is that, contrary to the standards of tech companies, automakers outsource much of their software to vendors. “You can’t cultivate it and expect a good experience,” he said. “At Lucid, instead of buying anything from the level, we create our own software and our own integration.”
Automakers are starting to recognize the new technological dominance.
“Launching a car now is not just a matter of hardware, but also of software,” said Thomas Ingenlath, CEO of Polestar. He added in an interview that the ability to do live updates of this software “makes a big difference in consumer satisfaction. We can respond quickly to any issues that arise.
Consumer expectations are a major factor here. It is true that there are some features that auto buyers don’t need, but they seem to want them. A November study from CoPilot, a data-driven car buying app, suggests that automakers are simply responding to public demand. It found that 65.7% of current leaseholders expect better features in their next car or truck, and just over 56% believe they will pay about as much or less than for their current vehicle.
Likewise, a CarMax survey in September of over 1,000 car owners found that nearly 50% “said they wanted their current car to have more technological features.”
Buyers in their 20s and 30s, a demographic in high demand by automakers, were most likely to say technology features were “extremely important” to them as a purchasing consideration. Overall, 15.9% considered the technology package to be extremely important; 36.7% considered it very important; and 31.8% belonged to the “fairly large” camp. Only 3.9% said it was “not at all” important.
Given the shortage of chips, technological expectations are unlikely to be met.
Pat Ryan, CEO and founder of CoPilot, said in an interview that consumers are likely on a collision course in three areas. “First, it can take three to six months just to get a car, and people aren’t used to that,” Ryan said. “The second problem is that buyers may find that their new car actually has fewer features than the one they are handing over.
Premium sound, wireless charging, and even heated seats may not be available due to the chip shortage. And people used to paying maybe 95% of the sticker price may find themselves affected by stickerplus. “
But the desire for high-tech cars shouldn’t go away. Jessica Caldwell, executive director of Insights at Edmunds, told TechCrunch that automakers present their cars and trucks as versatile offices and living spaces on wheels, and buyers are grateful.
“Consumers appreciate the growing number of features and equipment, and more importantly are ready to pay for these very satisfied vehicles,” she said. “The chip shortage has made it difficult to produce models with more options and features, but consumer interest is still there. And as long as there is a consumer appetite, automakers will find a way to feed it for the sake of their own profits and market share.