Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fixing cars now often means updating software

Dan Carney , NBC News contributor

It used to be that when cars left the factory, automakers had nothing further to do with them unless the manufacturers had made some terrible mistake in assembling them. In such cases, there would be a dramatic recall in which the defective or incorrectly installed part was replaced.

Computing devices, in contrast, get “recalled” almost weekly, as manufacturers issue software updates that correct flaws, address new challenges like a new virus, or tweak functions to satisfy customers.

Now that cars have as much computing power as they have horsepower, it should come as no surprise that they are getting software updates too. Few cars have the persistent Internet connection most computers have, so these updates won’t go out to the cars automatically.

Instead, drivers typically bring their cars to their dealers for updates. Do-it-yourself-oriented Ford owners can perform their own updates from flash drives. Taking the car to the dealer sounds like a hassle, but owners can schedule the software update at the same time as their oil change, thereby taking care of both maintenance issues at the same time.

Or, in the case of tech enthusiasts looking for the latest thing, they can take care of the old petroleum-era maintenance when they rush to the dealer for the latest digital update.

Just as computer and consumer electronics companies have telephone help centers to guide customers in their products’ use, so too do car companies. When those call centers notice a large volume of calls from customers complaining of the same problem, it points to the need for a change as to how a particular device works in the car.

In the case of the navigation systems in General Motors’ cars, the steps to cancel a navigation route were not obvious to most users. So those drivers frequently pressed the On-Star button to connect with the company so they could learn how to stop the continual voice prompts.

As a result, GM will reprogram the navigation system to make canceling a route simpler, according to Mark Harland, manager of GM’s connected customer team. “In the next generation (of the software), there will be a pop-up 'cancel route' or 'delete route' button on the screen,” he promised.

When the company notices that many customers are having the same problems using its products, they quickly perform triage on the problem to determine what can be done immediately to help and what solutions will need to wait for future software updates.

There is normally a “cadence” to the release of software updates that come out once or twice a year, he said, and solutions need to fit into that cadence. That approximately matches the oil change interval, so it shouldn’t pose a new burden on drivers.

At Chrysler, one of the biggest sources of customer headaches has been the challenge of pairing a phone with the car via Bluetooth wireless technology, reported Mike Long, head of Uconnect product development. Chrysler also wanted to see more detail on navigation maps, even when zoomed out. Consequently, in 2013 the software update will ensure that those maps gain that additional detail, Long said.

And all companies with products that use voice control have run into trouble with customers who have difficulty using the system. Chrysler’s solution will be to pop up an on-screen menu showing some of the choices of phrases available to drivers at the time.

The company hopes such a “teleprompter” will prove less distracting to drivers than a furious driver trying to figure out an unclear menu system.

The Ford guys have already done a software update to their MyFord Touch software, a change that saw the ambient temperature display on the central infotainment screen disappear. The cars show the outside temperature on the instrument panel also, so this display was thought to be redundant.

Responding to customers who let the company know they liked having the display there, the companies returned the temperature display to the central screen in the latest update, said Alan Hall, communications manager for technology at Ford. “We just launched that software update in September, so now customers can choose to have the temperature display configured “on” or “off,” based on their preference,” he said.

That sounds like the kind of “recall” drivers won’t mind.

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