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Toyota issues software patch for Prius; Do autos need to adopt IT best practices?

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As if you needed more evidence that cars have become one big technology system (with wheels), Toyota has issued a software patch for its braking problems for select 2010 Prius and Lexus hybrids. Do automakers need to adopt IT best practices?

As if you needed more evidence that cars have become one big technology system (with wheels), Toyota has issued a software patch for its braking problems for select 2010 Prius and Lexus hybrids.

Specifically, Toyota said Tuesday that it will recall 133,000 2010 Prius vehicles and 14,500 Lexus HS 250h autos. The issue: is that the anti-lock braking system (ABS) has an inconsistent feel on rough or slick road surfaces.

In a nutshell, Toyota dealers will update the software governing the ABS on the recalled vehicles. The software update will take about 30 minutes to install assuming technicians aren't swamped.

While Toyota's software update is just the latest tale of woe for the automaker, there are issues to be learned. Cars are complex and have many different technology systems. Working out an easy way to update electronics and software is going to be needed.

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes at ZDNet recently highlighted the conundrum. He wrote:

The problem is, as we all know as geeks, is that all software contains bugs, and sometimes these bugs can be very tricky to shake out, especially on a system as complex as a car where the software is having to process input from a vast array of sensors. Throw into the equation factors such as driving style, weather conditions, terrain and wear and tear and you really do have the perfect recipe for bugs.

Another issue that’s going to become troublesome is updates. With a PC, updating software is as easy as sending the new files over the Internet. Cars, on the other hand, need a visit to the dealer. It’s likely that at some point in the future cars will be updated automatically using WiFi, but for now, when a company has a problem such as the Prius has with the braking system, tracking down and upgrading all the cars is a nuisance for both maker and owner.

Seems to me some sort of auto updating system will be necessary. Wi-Fi seems clunky, but perhaps 3G, Wimax and other technologies hold the key. In either case, it's a nuisance to run to the dealer every time there's a software updated needed---assuming there will be many more in the future.

IT vendors---Microsoft, Adobe, Cisco and Oracle to name a few---have a patching process worked out where there's a heads up by a few days and then a software update is delivered. Fortunately, automakers haven't been that buggy yet, but it's not hard to envision a patch cycle for cars in the future. Simply put, automakers, which increasingly are putting computers with wheels on the road, may have to adopt some IT best practices to handle these updates.

How would you update the software in autos on the fly?

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Larry Dignan

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan is editor-in-chief of SmartPlanet and ZDNet. He is also editorial director of TechRepublic. Previously, he was an editor at eWeek, Baseline and CNET News. He has written for WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, New York Times and Financial Planning. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Delaware. He is based in New York but resides in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure