• Advanced Driver Assist Systems
  • Software
  • EV
  • Electric Vehicles
  • Tesla

Vehicles Delivered with Unfinished Software Become the Norm, Requiring Scrutiny

Sam Abuelsamid
Nov 12, 2021

Guidehouse Insights

I learned early in my career that engineers are inclined to keep refining whatever they are working on to make it better. However, perfect is the enemy of the good, at some point you must inevitably call a product good enough to ship. This scenario mostly concerned hardware products in the past. However, in the new era of the software-defined vehicle, products are never really done and now often ship in a state of incompleteness that would have been intolerable not so long ago. 

I spent my 17-year engineering career developing software that controlled early advanced driver assist systems, such as anti-lock braking systems, traction, and stability control. When I walked away from that in 2007, whatever was signed off for production was presumed to be good enough for the life of the vehicle. Unless a safety issue was discovered that required a recall, what left the factory generally stayed in the vehicle until it went to the scrapyard. 

Becoming Defined by Software

Over the past decade, vehicles have become substantially more defined by the software that controls them, and this is especially true for EVs. When Tesla launched the Model S in 2012 it included over-the-air (OTA) update capability for all of the software, including safety critical systems. Over the years, Tesla regularly updated existing features and added new ones via that OTA mechanism. The company also charges customers for features that aren’t yet developed, most notably full self-driving, which remains in a rough beta stage after 5 years. 

This trend of shipping what you have and fixing it later has now spread to other automakers. In the past year, I’ve driven new EVs from Ford Motor Company, Volkswagen, and (most recently) Rivian that left the factory in an unfinished state. Important aspects of the software either functioned poorly or not at all. 

Ford’s Mustang Mach-E shipped with a partition added to the front trunk to prevent kids from climbing in because the software for the emergency hood release switch wasn’t ready. The infotainment system in the Volkswagen ID.4 drew complaints about slow performance and crashes from owners and testers. The Rivian R1T is advertised as having hands-free driving but the functionality is not yet there. Additionally, changing the suspension mode sometimes triggers a fault that locks it in the wrong mode. 

What Is Minimally Viable?

None of these flaws are deal breakers and all three vehicles are, in most respects, excellent in their respective market segments. Some of these issues have already been resolved or at least improved. However, consumers are going to have to come to terms with the reality that demands for quicker vehicle introductions and continuous improvement over the life of the car may lead to some early disappointments with features. 

Automaker management will have to be cautious when mandating times for engineers to ship something. Vehicle safety is a much bigger issue than with most other consumer products. The threshold for minimum viability is much higher for vehicles than smartphones, for example. Customers might tolerate some degree of incompleteness but manufacturers must exercise care to enable properly functional safety-critical systems before signing off on production.