The EV industry faces a core challenge: software bugs

Cars running on all-electric battery power include high-tech operational systems that are dramatically different from gas-powered setups. EVs are highly dependent on software–not just the infotainment system or within the touchscreen, but from bumper to bumper. These are “software-defined vehicles,” which is an industry term that illustrates the difference between a car enhanced by technology and one that is run by technology. 

The problem with software, especially in its first iteration, is that it can be buggy; just ask Apple, whose software troubles reportedly caused iPhone 15 models to heat up excessively. As a result, software bugs can cause both evident and phantom issues that are difficult to pinpoint within a mountain of code. 

Although the push for all-electric vehicles is increasing due to both competitive one-upmanship and government encouragement, some manufacturers (including GM, Volkswagen, and Volvo) are taking a beat to evaluate their software development process. GM, for example, delayed production of its electric trucks, including the Chevy Silverado RST and GMC Sierra Denali EVs, at its Ohio plant until late 2025. Volvo postponed deliveries of its new EX30 due to software challenges. As the adage goes: measure twice, cut once.

Growing pains

It’s a common belief among consumers that it’s a bad idea to buy the first model year of a car. In the past, more people believed manufacturers needed a year “to get the bugs out” before the car was ready for mass distribution. However, today’s automakers are more efficient than they’ve ever been, and they’re more likely to build on shared platforms and parts that are tried and true from specialty manufacturers. Software, on the other hand, is a wide-open universe, and code varies from vehicle to vehicle.

EV specialist Tesla has issued a string of over-the-air updates to correct software problems. Some are small, such as the most recent recall regarding the size of the brake warning; others are significantly more impactful, like those affecting the cars’ driving-assist feature. In most cases, the over-the-air updates fix the problem without customers having to bring their vehicle to a physical location. 

Ford (and its luxury arm Lincoln) has shifted to growing its in-house software development team for the brand’s new infotainment system. In the past, the company relied on suppliers for hardware and software, but Ford technical specialists say bringing the development in-house is faster, cheaper, and results in higher quality.

Smaller automakers may not have the resources and personnel to make such a big investment in technology infrastructure, so their future is hitched to outside providers. Either way, whipping up lines of code is a major shift in the automotive industry, and growing pains seem to be inevitable.

Ed Kim, president and chief analyst of automotive research and consulting firm AutoPacific, points out that legacy automakers are challenged with a daunting task. They must learn very quickly how to create all-encompassing software for automobiles when their expertise has long been the physical nuts, bolts, and components that cars are made of.

“In the emerging software-defined era, software is absolutely integral and critical to all aspects of a vehicle’s operation, but software is out of the realm of expertise for most automakers,” Kim says. “They are currently learning at a frantic pace, recruiting expertise from the tech industries to help them not only understand and integrate software into their vehicles, but also grasp how they can innovate for the consumer’s benefit and take automotive to places it has never been.”

Exterminating the software bugs

Even EV companies born in the battery-electric world aren’t immune to the same software challenges. Rivian, one of the newest manufacturers in America, accidentally torched the infotainment system and main instrument display of some customers’ vehicles in November with a “fat fingers” error during the rollout.

Rivian’s VP of software engineering Wassym Bensaid posted an explanation on Rivian’s subreddit page:

“We made an error with the 2023.42 OTA update – a fat finger where the wrong build with the wrong security certificates was sent out,” Bensaid said. “We cancelled the campaign and we will restart it with the proper software that went through the different campaigns of beta testing. Service will be contacting impacted customers and will go through the resolution options. That may require physical repair in some cases.”

Chevrolet started delivering its much-anticipated 2024 Blazer EV in the middle of last year and then pulled the vehicle with a stop-sale notice in December after a major software problem. Car site Edmunds bought a Blazer EV as a long-term test vehicle, and the SUV threw 23 fault codes within the first two months, confounding the team.

“The consequences of getting software wrong–even if it can be fixed quickly over the air–can be much more dire [than it might be on a smaller appliance],” says Kim. “A software flaw that may be an inconvenience on a malfunctioning smartphone app can be catastrophic and life-threatening in an automobile.”

During a GM fourth-quarter earnings call last week, CEO Mary Barra told investors that GM’s software and services team is working “with a huge sense of urgency” to fix the challenges plaguing its new EV. The good news for GM and other automakers is that while software bugs are inevitable, they’re not beyond extermination. With upcoming launches of the Chevy Equinox EV, Silverado EV RST, GMC Sierra EV Denali, and Cadillac Escalade IQ on the docket, the legacy manufacturing group is adding in some extra time for vetting and testing. It’s a smart strategy for GM and its customers, and will pay off in time.