Connectivity, the key to restoring consumer trust

Volkswagen Group has been caught cheating emissions testing and has recalled nearly 500,000 vehicles in the US while also admitting there are 11M worldwide that carry the ‘defeat device’ software within their engine management systems.

Yet, the world’s largest auto maker is not the first to have been caught out taking shortcuts and having to recall millions of vehicles. US carmakers, themselves, have a rich history of embarrassing recalls. In 2013 Dodge Ram recalled 1.2M vehicles up to ten years old with steering problems, every model of the Chevrolet HHR saloon produced, between 2005-2011, were recalled suffering ignition, airbag and power steering issues and General Motors most recalled vehicle in its history, the Chevrolet Malibu, saw 6.7M cars recalled mainly for power steering faults.

But leading the bummer-bunch is the Ford F-150 pickup which, since 1990 has had 14.7M cars recalled with a myriad of issues including power steering, potential fuel leaks, faulty lighting, over heating speed control switches and the possibility of wheels falling off.

So what makes the VW sin so great? Firstly, while it’s possible to argue all the other recalls just mentioned were probably down to sheer ineptitude, the German carmaker’s crime was a deliberate fraudulent attempt to evade a legal requirement set by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

But, secondly and, possibly in the long term, more importantly, it was the miss use of the car’s software that, up until now, we have been told is simply there to safeguard the interests of the owner and driver. Indeed, for many ordinary car users, news of the scandal would have been greeted with: “Wow! There’s computer software in my car?” Some may even start questioning why a computer is necessary in a car when mobile devices can handle all the computing the user needs while driving? Any computer can be hacked so why take the risk of putting it in a vehicle capable of travelling at speed?

And here’s the rub: while the first offence against the State can be settled with fines and, ultimately, even convictions, the second offence against the customer’s faith can take very much longer to repair.

Connected car

This is now a major issue for everyone in the connected car industry to consider because it brings the topic of software and computers in the vehicle to the forefront of the car buying public’s mind.

We all have become used to applauding industry disrupters and, yet, this is disruption on a global scale seldom before seen within the automotive industry.

As such, however, it could become a catalyst for new challenges and opportunities for everyone working in the connected car field because carmakers are going to have to restore their customers’ trust in their products. To do this they will have to adopt a fresh approach to what type of computers and software are used in their products and also how the customers will perceive their use. Connectivity’s presence must be seen as an essential asset to the car and not some sleeping malware that can be activated to cheat the system or take control away from the user as we saw with recent hacking scandals including that with a Jeep Cherokee.

It’s impossible to predict how the systems could now evolve. Perhaps, it’s with a two-tier control system where the vehicle’s management systems are totally separate from the infotainment services employed in the cabin – a system that would have its own transparent architecture that can be quickly and easily checked by legal authorities for ‘cheating’ software.

Howsoever the industry moves forward, the imperative now, as it always should have been, is on the customer and ensuring that customer gets the product and service he or she can trust and is, therefore, more likely remain loyal to brands that espouse these values.

This imperative, for everyone in the connected car field, will only become more urgent as the car’s future is steered by both the demands of changing legislation and the pace of technological innovation.

Take up the debate at TU-Automotive Europe 2015 November 2-3.

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