My iPhone, now almost two years old, is better than the day I bought it. It’s banged up, and there’s a nasty scratch on the screen, but it has constantly improved. New apps are available every day, and the base capabilities are improved with regular OS upgrades.
Meanwhile, when I was car shopping last month, I encountered cars with Pandora support and those without. Even when all the physical requirements (ports or Bluetooth) were met, I was confident that most cars I looked at which lacked an integration with the audio streaming service would always lack that capability. Next years’ model might, but whatever car I purchased would constantly get worse.
Other “things” get better
Smart phones are not unique in getting better. Amazingly, there are internet controlled thermostats that attempt to run heat and air conditioning while you’re home and not when you’re away. Since they’re WIFI enabled, they automatically take software updates improving their algorithms. Just about everything in my entertainment center gets better too. The setup box and gaming console both get regular updates and the DVD player has a USB port that makes updating the firmware to support new standards a ten minute process.
The things that update most frequently are those with screens that consumers interact with and are connected to the internet. As we look forward towards the “Internet of Things” when more and more of our home appliances are WIFI enabled, smart, and talk to one another, I expect consumers to be increasingly conditioned to the stuff in their life just getting better.
Cars are starting to get better
The good news is that it appears that cars are going to get better too. Ford has some clear instructions for updating their MyTouch system, and a recent update even adds a new audio app (for audible.com). Mercedes is out with an over the air upgrade with the concept of apps and Tesla owners debate the merits of various updates in their forums.
Most manufacturers don’t offer these capabilities (or at least don’t make it obvious with a quick search). I think we can expect the trend to continue, and for the Mercedes model of an over the air option being available. The trend is also towards updating the infotainment systems first. That most clearly matches our smart phone and tablet experiences.
Some manufacturers may be tempted to stick the status-quo of not providing easy upgrades in order to nudge their customers into upgrading sooner. The result is that their cars will have worse resale values over time making their products effectively more expensive. Automakers that do not provide easy software upgrades will repeat the mistake of planned obsolesce.
Instead, we can expect upgrades to become more frequent and easier over time. An industry groomed on multi-year product design cycles will need to become proficient at agile development and DevOps.
What about the software that controls the brakes?
While the infotainment systems are easy candidates for frequent updates, a significant portion of the software in vehicles is safety critical. Part of Toyota’s response to a safety recall was to update the software that controls what happens when both the accelerator and brakes are depressed (brakes now win).
Software can control trade-offs such as how responsive a vehicle is to the accelerator vs fuel efficiency. If an engineer working on next years’ model finds an algorithm tweak that improves fuel efficiency, would that be pushed out to existing models? How would that impact regulatory bodies that demand efficiency gains? Would an automaker be credited for improving cars already on the road the same way they are for improving efficiency in the new model? I’ll leave that to the automakers and regulators to negotiate.
However, as we look at software that is increasingly safety critical and regulation impacting, it seems too safe to assume that updates will be better tested and less frequent. Again, automakers can turn to their IT departments for a parallel. IT will talk in terms of systems of engagement (the website or mobile app) and systems of record (financial records). While often connected, the pace of release can vary widely.
As the things around us, and the things we drive, become increasingly software driven and connected, we expect that they will improve while we own them. That’s pretty great. But, we can also expect growing pains as organizations used to very infrequent releases that are never updated, adapt to a world in which they can respond to negative reviews of their product by releasing a patch.