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  • Writer's pictureMike Entner

Navigating the Road Ahead: Lessons from Rivian's Software Update Mishap and the Path for Automotive

By Michael Entner-Gómez | Digital Transformation Officer | Entner Consulting Group, LLC.

The recent issue with Rivian's software update, leading to malfunctioning infotainment systems (Rivian software update bricks infotainment system, fix not obvious), is a stark reminder for the automotive industry. As cars become more software-driven, Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) must look to established software companies for lessons in development and deployment best practices.

Here are some helpful tips for those still learning the ropes of established software development methodologies:

1. Thorough Testing:

Extensive testing is crucial for the safety and reliability of automotive software, as demonstrated by Tesla's Autopilot and Waymo's autonomous technology. Tesla's rigorous testing in varied weather, traffic, and road conditions ensures real-world readiness, while Waymo's extensive use of simulations covers millions of virtual miles, testing scenarios difficult to replicate in reality. These practices underline the importance of comprehensive testing across diverse scenarios, enabling companies to preemptively address potential issues. This meticulous approach significantly enhances the safety and effectiveness of automotive software before its deployment in vehicles.

2. Robust Deployment Procedures:

Robust deployment procedures, essential in complex systems like modern vehicles, are exemplified by Google's incremental rollout strategy and Microsoft's structured Patch Tuesday schedule. Google's method involves initial releases to a limited user base, allowing performance monitoring and stability assurance before wider deployment. Microsoft's scheduled updates enable planned, comprehensive testing and stakeholder preparedness. These approaches, focusing on deploying correct software versions and components, minimize error risks and are particularly crucial in the automotive industry, where software inaccuracies can lead to significant safety concerns.

3. A/B Update Mechanisms:

A/B testing strategies, used by Spotify and Facebook, are key for software stability, involving the release of a new version to a subset of users while maintaining the older version for the rest. This allows for real-time performance monitoring and, if necessary, a quick rollback to the stable version, ensuring service continuity and minimizing disruptions. In the automotive industry, where updates critically affect vehicle functionality, such strategies are invaluable for maintaining system integrity and enhancing both user experience and safety.

4. Staging Rollouts:

Staging rollouts, as practiced by Google with Android OS and Apple with its beta testing programs, involve releasing updates to a small, controlled group of users initially. This strategy allows companies to monitor performance and user feedback in a more manageable environment. By identifying and addressing any issues that arise during this initial phase, the likelihood of widespread problems upon broader release is significantly reduced. This method is particularly effective in complex systems like automotive software, where a controlled, phased approach can prevent major disruptions and ensure that any software update enhances the user experience without compromising safety or functionality.

5. Redundancy in Critical Systems:

Redundancy in critical systems is a key principle in ensuring the reliability and safety of complex machines, such as commercial aircraft and modern vehicles. By implementing redundant systems in areas like avionics in aircraft or Tesla's vehicle safety features, there is a fallback mechanism in place if one system fails. This approach means that essential functions can continue to operate, minimizing the risk of complete system failure. Such redundancy is crucial in the automotive industry, where system failures can have direct implications for driver and passenger safety. Implementing redundant systems ensures that even in the event of a malfunction, core functionalities remain operational, thereby enhancing the overall safety and reliability of the vehicle.

6. Customer Communication Channels:

Effective customer communication channels are pivotal for maintaining trust and facilitating troubleshooting. Apple's support updates provide timely information about software changes, known issues, and fixes, allowing customers to stay informed and prepared. Similarly, Samsung's use of social media for engaging with customers offers a platform for immediate interaction, feedback, and support. Such communication strategies are essential in the automotive industry, especially for updates or addressing software-related concerns. Keeping customers informed not only builds trust but also enhances the overall user experience by ensuring they are supported throughout the lifecycle of their vehicle.

7. Emergency Response Plan:

An effective emergency response plan is crucial in swiftly addressing software issues. Google's rapid deployment of patches to address security vulnerabilities exemplifies the importance of a quick response to software problems. Similarly, Toyota's efficient recall strategy demonstrates the ability to address physical vehicle issues effectively. Such prompt actions are vital for maintaining customer trust and safety, especially in the automotive industry where software malfunctions can have immediate and significant implications. A well-prepared emergency plan ensures that issues are resolved quickly, minimizing the impact on users and maintaining the brand's reputation for reliability and responsibility.

8. Feedback Loops from Users:

The practice of gathering and analyzing user feedback quickly after updates is an invaluable tool for continuous improvement. Companies like Apple, Tesla, and Microsoft excel in this area, using customer feedback to identify and rectify unforeseen issues. This approach not only aids in enhancing the quality of the product but also significantly improves the user experience. In the context of automotive software, where updates can directly impact vehicle performance and safety, establishing effective feedback channels allows manufacturers to swiftly address concerns, adapt to user needs, and continuously refine their systems.

9. CI/CD Practices:

The adoption of Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment (CI/CD) practices, as demonstrated by Amazon's high-frequency deployment and Netflix's microservices architecture, offers significant benefits in software development and maintenance. These practices allow for regular, smaller updates, facilitating more efficient problem resolution and reducing the risks associated with large-scale changes. By integrating CI/CD, companies can ensure that their software is continuously updated and maintained, aligning with the latest advancements and customer feedback. This approach is particularly beneficial in the automotive industry, where the ability to swiftly address issues and update software can significantly enhance vehicle functionality and user experience.

10. User-Centric Design and Testing:

Involving real users in the testing phases of software development is a critical practice for ensuring that products meet actual needs and expectations. Companies like Apple and Google excel in this aspect by integrating user feedback into their design and testing processes. This approach provides valuable insights into how the software performs in real-life scenarios and its usability. Such user-centric testing is especially important in the automotive sector, where understanding how drivers interact with vehicle software in everyday conditions can lead to more intuitive, reliable, and user-friendly systems.

11. Professional Oversight:

Adhering to strict development standards and multi-level review processes is crucial in software development, a practice exemplified by organizations like NASA, Google, and IBM. These standards ensure that software is developed with the highest quality and compliance in mind. Such rigorous oversight processes involve thorough reviews at various stages of development, ensuring that every aspect of the software meets stringent criteria for functionality, safety, and reliability. In the automotive industry, where software directly impacts vehicle performance and safety, such professional oversight is vital for ensuring that software updates and new developments adhere to the highest standards of quality and safety.

Expanding the Automotive Team: Hiring Software Engineers

For automotive OEMs, embracing the digital era means expanding their teams beyond traditional mechanical and electrical engineers. Hiring skilled software engineers is crucial. These professionals bring expertise in modern software development practices, ensuring that automotive software is as robust, efficient, and innovative as the technology in consumer electronics.

A Holistic Approach to CI/CD is Needed

CI/CD practices are integral for automotive OEMs, not just for maintaining software integrity, but also for managing critical aspects like security, simulation, deployment, and feedback loops. This approach facilitates a more streamlined process, where security checks are integrated into the development cycle, ensuring robust protection against vulnerabilities. Simulations can be routinely conducted as part of the CI process, allowing for continuous testing and validation of software under varied conditions. Deployment through CI/CD ensures that updates are methodically released and monitored, while feedback loops become an integral part of the cycle, allowing for immediate responses to user input or issues. This comprehensive approach ensures that every aspect of software development is cohesive, efficient, and aligned with the high standards required in the automotive industry.

Safety as a Priority and the Role of AI

Unlike many software applications, errors in automotive software can have dire safety implications. OEMs must acknowledge that even minor issues, like Rivian's infotainment system glitch, can escalate into significant functional safety concerns. Therefore, every aspect of software development and testing must be approached with safety as the foremost consideration. AI can be leveraged to simulate complex driving scenarios and predict outcomes in ways humans might not foresee, enhancing the robustness of safety tests. By utilizing machine learning algorithms, OEMs can analyze vast amounts of data from simulations and real-world driving conditions, allowing for more comprehensive and predictive safety assessments. This AI-driven approach enables the identification and rectification of potential safety issues with greater precision and efficiency, ensuring that even minor software glitches are addressed with safety as the paramount concern.

SDV is a Different Beast

The transition to software-driven vehicles represents a fundamental shift in the automotive industry. To excel in this new paradigm, OEMs must depart from traditional engineering approaches and embrace modern software development practices. This entails meticulous testing, continuous integration, and efficient deployment strategies. Prioritizing safety in every software update is paramount, considering the dire consequences of errors in automotive software. Additionally, OEMs should expand their talent pool to include software engineering experts who can drive innovation and ensure the reliability of software-driven vehicles. This comprehensive transformation is not only essential for competitiveness but also for delivering superior, safe, and customer-centric automotive software solutions.

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