The Gaping Hole Where Auto Software Standards Should Be

Toyota’s recent fiascoes with runaway acceleration illuminate the sorrylack of software standards to establish minimum quality levels fortechnologies crucial to the operation of transportation systems.Toyota has rejected accusations that its software systems are theculprit.

Toyota recalled 3.8 million Toyota and Lexus models in October 2009over concerns involving sliding floor mats that reportedly caused thegas pedal to engage. In January of this year, the car maker recalled2.3 million of its vehicles because of sticky accelerators allegedlysparked by condensation.

So far, no tangible proof exists that the acceleration woes are keyedto runaway software. That leaves drivers to steer around car makers’rebuttals that the fault lies with inept car operators and notsoftware designers.

Consumers have no way now to know, for example, whether their cars’antilock brake system is working. Too many variables are involved toaccurately diagnose ailing circuitry.

Buggy software and the lack of government standards,along with a lack of uniformity in the auto industry, put car ownersin the middle of safety issues with the multiple software systems thatcontrol their vehicles.

“Sudden acceleration and vehicle control have been an issue for a longtime. Government agencies have never addressed it,” Rosemary Shahan,president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, toldTechNewsWorld.

No Escape

Car makers for the last 10 years have been in a race to upgrademechanical cables and related car parts. Engineers designed systemsrun by computers to control braking, acceleration, climate control andtransmission performance, among others.

Toyota engineers have been integrating electronic controls into allToyota vehicles. That process started in 2002 with the Camry. AllToyota models since 2007 have software-driven speed controls.

It’s true that most consumers do not realize the extent of computerprogramming in controlling the systems in their car. It is theGovernment’s responsibility to approve the computer systems, saidShahan.

“The government still hasn’t decided that if you can’t control yourcar, it is a safety problem,” she said.

See No Evil

Toyota is not the only car maker navigating around accusations ofquality problems with its auto controls, but recent fatalities drovethe company into the spotlight.

Over the years, Ford, Audi and Nissan had similar troubles. In allcases, government agencies responsible for overseeing consumer safetydetoured away from the situation.

Nissan had a similar problem years ago and blamed drivers. Nissannever recognized that a problem existed. Similarly, Audi claimed thatthe cause was stupid drivers. Now, Toyota is placing the blame ondrivers’ ineptness, which is insulting to drivers and ridiculous,noted Shahan.

“Ford kept arguing in litigation that no standard means no safetydefect,” she said.

Look Elsewhere

So far, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)seems to be taking a back seat in pointing to causes and offeringsolutions to prevent more safety problems. NHTSA officialsdeflected interview questions to its press secretary, offering agencypablum to questions about auto safety standards and possible plansfor government action.

“On background, vehicles sold in the U.S. are the safest they haveever been in automotive history and have the most sophisticated safetysystems in the world. From seat belts to airbags, from electronicstability control to lane departure systems, the modern car depends onproperly functioning electronic systems throughout the vehicle. NHTSAwill continue to oversee the world’s most intensive auto safetyprogram,” Eric Bolton, press officer for the National Highway TrafficSafety Administration, told TechNewsWorld.

Overseeing the continued occurrences of automotive safety issues isone thing. Taking action to ensure consumer safety, however, seems tobe a standard the NHTSA does not yet have on its road map.

Braking Inaction

Earlier reports of problems with auto braking systems run parallel tothe more recent sudden acceleration issues. No government agency hasresponded to these ongoing problems, according to Shahan.

“Our sister organizations have pushed for a brake override regulation.This solution seems to be so much common sense. You should be able tostomp on your brake to stop your car,” she said.

The NHTSA sees the matter differently. That agency so far is contentwith leaving oversight on auto computer systems to the discretion ofthe auto makers.

Take No Action

“On background, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, are, for themost part, performance based, meaning that the specific performanceparameters are established in the standard (leaving it up to the automaker to determine the specific technologies that best meets theperformance requirements of the standard),” Bolton said.

Thus, many car manufacturers choose to use computer chips, electronicsand other software-reliant systems to meet these standards, heexplained. Take, for example, the federal motor vehicle safetystandard for braking for light vehicles.

That regulation sets minimum stopping requirements for differentspeeds, but the NHTSA does not set specific standards for auto makers to follow on what kind of brakes are required, or what sizes they should be, saidBolton.

Maybe Standards

The NHTSA is not planning to alter its current course in notregulating auto software for safety issues. It is leaving thatfunction to the car makers themselves.

On background, the agency’s safety standards are performance based.The choice of technologies, including the software carmanufacturers use, is a choice they make as they design and producevehicles for sale in the U.S., according to Bolton.

“NHTSA will continue to look at all automotive safety systems, and ifthere is a need for a new safety regulation, or upgrading existingones, the agency will move to initiate appropriate rule making,”Bolton said.

How Safe?

Is the U.S. government doing anything to prevent a recurrence ofsoftware glitches? The short answer is no. The longer answer suggestsno problem exists.

“On background, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration,has the most active defect investigation program in the world,” Boltonsaid.

For example, the NHTSA receives more than 30,000 complaints fromconsumers every year and reviews each one carefully and quickly. Overthe last three years, NHTSA’s defect and compliance investigationshave resulted in 524 recalls involving 23.5 million vehicles, he said.

Quality No Control

The acceleration and braking troubles may not go away until car makerstackle the larger issues around software standards. The continuedabsence of software mandates could easily undo the performance recordfor safety touted by the NHTSA.

Auto software, unlike PC software, is comprised of system of systems.That is, software comes from a variety of suppliers and then they’reessentially “duct-taped” together.

“The software is reliable. It’s just the method to ensure that onesoftware component works with another software component,” DavePeterson, chief marketing officer at Coverity, told TechNewsWorld.Coverity develops software testing and analysis software to examinecode for safety issues and other defects.

Reining In Code

“I think we are experiencing a combination of somewhat reliablesoftware combining with multiple complex software systems,” saidPeterson.

Overall, it has been proven that you can have reliable softwaresystems in cars — but it has also been proven that you need to changequality control to make sure that their aren’t any hidden features inthe software.

“I don’t think the industry is yet in a really mature state tounderstand all the issues when you combine complex systems,” added Peterson.

Author Anyone?

Another aspect of the faulty auto software debacle is that nobodybuilds software from scratch anymore. This pushes the safety factoreven further away.

“Much of it comes through the supply chain. It is hard to ensure thequality of all of that software. That is a big challenges that isgoing to have to be addressed with the changes in rules andregulations,” Andy Chou, chief scientist and co-founder of Coverity,told TechNewsWorld.

The faulty software issue is also worsened by the lack of uniformityacross the auto maker’s company. This is a situation that requiressome standardization across the auto industry, he said.

What’s Next?

It is inevitable that some level of requirements will be put on thatsupply chain to declare the integrity of the software. It is clearthat this needs to happen, according to Peterson.Other industries — such as the avionics and military air space communities –have regulations that specify exactly how software developmentshould be done. There are stringent rules and standards that separate software that is safety-critical from software that is less safety-critical, Chou explained.

Rules are in place to make sure that software elements are segregatedand also tested according to the standards required for that kind ofsoftware.

“I think we will see over time more government regulations ofautomotive software,” Peterson concluded.

Leave a Comment

Please sign in to post or reply to a comment. New users create a free account.

More by Jack M. Germain
More in Applications

Technewsworld Channels