Increasing Software Content Impacts Vehicle Reliability Rankings

vehicle reliabilityWhen Consumer Reports released its 2016 Auto Reliability Survey a few weeks ago, I was able to gain additional background insight from Jake Fisher, the Automotive Testing  Director as he presented the results at an Automotive Press Association luncheon in Detroit. For the most part, no big surprises in the rankings of the most reliable and least reliable vehicles as compared to previous years — with the exception of Buick moving into the top three brand position.

The vehicle reliability ranking is comprised of a combination of values including road testing, owner satisfaction, reliability, and safety data compiled from crash tests performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

There are some basic ‘bewares” for the consumer if reliability is a key component in their purchasing decision. And, it is according to J.D. Powers — more than 50% of owners cite reliability as one of the most influential reasons for choosing a specific make and model.

Avoid First Year Models
A good rule of thumb for these folks is do not purchase a first-year model vehicle. Typically the bugs have not yet been worked out. It can take years to identify and eliminate these issues. Consumer Reports noted that Buick may have boosted its brand reliability because it has not had any recent new vehicle launches.

Secondly, somewhat similar to first year models — beware of new transmissions. The 2016 report observed that Ford’s reliability rankings were likely adversely affected by its dual-clutch transmission issues in the Ford Focus and Fiesta. And, Fiat’s reliability ranking remains low due to a problematic 9-speed automatic transmission. However, after Googling “why so many transmission problems”, the top 10 search results identified BMW, Nissan, Dodge, Ford, Jeep, and Honda as all having transmission issues. I’m not an expert, but I’m guessing it is a combination of more complex transmission designs as well as more reliance on sensors and software, which brings us to the last issue – more electronics.

Electronics Increase Complexity
Increasing vehicle software content
Overall, the report showed an increasing rate of in-car electronic issues. With more infotainment systems and semi-autonomous driving technologies entering the vehicle, there is more chance for problems in these areas. The actual rate of mechanical issues is going down, but with the increasing rate of electronic issues, the overall quality rankings are staying about the same.

As we move toward autonomous technologies, there is an increasing amount of software in the vehicle where a typical vehicle now contains 50+ computers, electronic control units, and 100+million lines of code. Some statistics state that 99% of issues today are said to be software-related.  As we move toward self-driving vehicles, eliminating software issues will rely upon a strong understanding of systems engineering with a systems architecture that sets the foundation for integrated vehicle development. The complexity of autonomous vehicles requires a convergence of technologies that must be dynamically tested and validated.  However, engineers typically each work in their own silo – mechanical, controls, software. To help boost the knowledge level of engineers in this field, Udacity, an online learning resource, is now offering a self-driving car engineer nano-degree. The program covers topics inclusive of computer vision, sensor fusion, localization, controllers, vehicle kinematics, automotive hardware, and more.

Tomorrow’s vehicle will have an increasing reliance on embedded systems and electronics. But while advancing smarter vehicles, automakers must also be able to successfully manage complexity, optimize performance, and ensure vehicle safety to reach all the factors that contribute to vehicle reliability. To help companies meet all these targets, Dassault Systemes’ offers its Smart, Safe & Connected solutions to validate sub-systems and the digital vehicle performance earlier in development cycle, saving costs and minimizing errors.

Nancy Lesinski
Born and raised in the Motor City by a Donna Reed mom and Corvette engineer dad, my parents were continually surprised that their humanities-loving daughter ended up with a career focused on manufacturing and the automotive industry. I’ve been providing communications services to Dassault Systemes since 2001.
Nancy Lesinski
Nancy Lesinski