The Anxiety of Digital: Cars, Power Grid Up Next


If you can’t recall the collective anxiety that is attached to the emergence of digital and networked technologies just take a peek back at the news headlines of yesteryear. The fear over computerized voting systems started soon after the 2000 U.S. presidential election debacle, while worry about online banking began when the first bank put its customer accounts on the web. But as the latest systems, including vehicles and the power grid, crossover to the digital and computing world, and get connected to communication networks, expect the same, if not more, fear.

The Transformation: Grid, Vehicles

Both vehicles and the power grid are undergoing massive transformations involving IT. The so-called smart grid industry has emerged to sell utilities infrastructure based on communication networks, and companies are building software and services to help utilities manage energy data. The smart grid is projected to generate $210 billion in investment between 2010 and 2015, and President Obama has called for the installation of 40 million smart (digital and connected) meters in the U.S.

Cars are going digital and connected, too. Vehicles are now “packed with up to 100 million lines of computer code,” and have “at least 30 microprocessor-controlled devices,” points out the New York Times this weekend. Many automakers offer services based on network connections, like location-based navigation (enabled by a GPS system) or GM’s OnStar System which is based on a cellular connection.

As electric vehicles emerge in the coming years there will be even more uses of software and communication networks to manage the vehicle’s charge. Utilities will have to manage the collective charging of customers, so that EV charging doesn’t take down their grids. Electric vehicle infrastructure player Better Place will be offering its customers “a comprehensive suite of in-car services designed to provide drivers with the best possible EV driving experience,” when it launches commercially in 2011. Those types of services include directing drivers to available and nearby charge points, and rely heavily on software, computing and communication connections.

The Anxiety

Before electric vehicles even hit the mainstream market, though, consumers are already getting anxiety over computer and software dependent cars. Last week Toyota said that a software glitch is responsible for the braking problem in its Prius hybrid 2010. That’s led to a new round of media headlines taking a hard look at the trend of software and computing in cars (like the New York Time’s this weekend: The Dozens of Computers That Make Modern Cars Go (and Stop)).

I’ve experienced software glitches when driving a Smart Car that’s networked in the car sharing service City Car Share, and believe me it wasn’t fun. The Smart Car has a lot of embedded software, and the City Car Share service has its own software and IT systems, and I’ve had to call customer service several times in order to restart the computing system (kinda like rebooting a computer) to get the car to work properly. As the drivers of the Toyota Prius’ with glitchy software found: beta software just doesn’t cut it at 60 mph.

The smart grid has also had growing pains. “The Bakersfield issue,” emerged when residents in Bakersfield, Calif. filed a suit against utility PG&E for smart meters that they claimed boosted electricity bills. The problem was a combination of unusually hot weather and a lack of proper customer outreach, but at the heart of the issue was anxiety surrounding the introduction of the new digital meter.

When Digital Meets High Impact

Both vehicles and the power grid have different relationships with consumers, compared to entertainment, communications and some types of information. When your wireless network drops or your browser crashes and you’re sitting in front of a computer, it’s annoying but not life threatening. Software problems and dropped communication connections could have much more serious consequences in a vehicle (crashing, being stranded somewhere, not being able to get to work, etc), and for the power grid (outages, surges, etc).

Problems with reliability of software and computing in high-impact areas has been studied for years. For example, health care — last month I read this New York Times article that investigated faulty software that caused a string of medical errors for radiation treatments and lead to several deaths. It’s terrifying to think software that controls radiation shot at someone’s chest, could freeze as easily as my Firefox browser. The aviation and defense industries have long been dealing with the impact of software and communication systems on their high-impact technologies.

There’s also the worry over networks being more susceptible to security concerns. Adding a two-way network connection, means something, or someone, can access the data — that’s the whole point of connecting it to a network. But that also means the connected system can be hacked and used in ways that it wasn’t intended. The smart grid is no different, and computer security firm IOActive has shown a virtual demo of how a worm or virus could infiltrate connected digital smart meters and crash a power grid. The U.S. government is paying particular attention to smart grid security, following warnings from the Internet industry. How long until we see headlines about hacked cars?

The companies building the future of digital, connected vehicles and the power grid will be smart to look at the lessons learned through the digitization of some of these high-impact area, like aviation, defense and health care. These companies will just have to realize how sensitive the transition is to digital, connected systems and remain hyper vigilant. But expect to see a lot more headlines about digital anxiety over vehicles and the power grid in the future.

But ultimately the transformation to digital, connected vehicles and the power grid can’t slow down due to digital anxiety. Digitizing these 2 sectors — which are two of the biggest factors that contribute to the world’s carbon emissions and global warming — is fundamental to fight climate change.

Image courtesy of FlickrJunkie’s photostream Creative Commons.


Katie Fehrenbacher

@Anita, Thanks for weighing. To clarify in my article, when I wrote “I’ve had to call customer service several times in order to restart the computing system (kinda like rebooting a computer) to get the car to work properly.” It was particularly when turning on the Smart car — not when driving it. So it wasn’t a safety issues, but a convenience issue.

Anthony W.

I think this is a valid concern. Most of those old systems that we’ve lived with weren’t as complex, and have been well tested.

It’s not the fact that these life-critical objects are driven by software, it comes down to how they’re tested in real life situations.

If software and hardware designers do a good job in creating multiple backup, checkup and redundancy systems, then the chance of a problem causing a fatal incident are greatly reduced.



One more clarification: There were problems with the voting machines, but they seemed to be purposely in place as opposed to actual bugs with the code. I find it hard to believe that there was a bug that only decreased the counts of democrats and overstated only republicans – no other candidates. That is more like a conspiracy theory than a real software issue.


First of all, I would like to point out that the fear over computerized voting had nothing to do with the performance of the software but rather the political motivations of the company that produces them combined with a lack of audit trails and the fact that there is only one major producer of voting machines. A company with a monopoly on voting machines, whose leaders are big supporters of the republican party, could conceivably fix elections if there isn’t an appropriate amount of oversight and traceability. This was the cause for concern, not the fact that software was being used to tabulate votes. It’s the process and lack of oversight, not the product itself.

Furthermore, it seems like your actual fear here is network security and hackers. That is always a concern for people who manage large information networks and is a very valid one. However, not everything with software is hooked up to a network (or even to neighboring components). The ECU in a car is a stand-alone system and, to my knowledge, is not part of any network. GPS tracking systems are installed in some cars, but again, those systems are separate and do not interact with the control modules of the actual car. They are stand-alone systems just like the technology used by car sharing companies. They work much the same way your phone does (which also has software and uses a network to transmit information).

Also, engineering failures have been occurring since the dawn of time. To say that a company has a product with a design flaw doesn’t mean that the use of software is to blame. When China manufactures a bunch of toys with lead paint, we don’t say that they toys themselves are to blame. It’s the design or manufacturing process that caused the problem. There can be design flaws in software just as there can be mechanical design flaws (like where something wears differently over time than expected).

Software itself is not some evil thing that we need to be afraid of. There is software in everything these days, including just about everything electronic. It’s the process behind the product that is the real concern – how thoroughly the product is tested, how experienced the engineers are, what they do with the information they collect, how they protect our information from fraud, and so on.

Anita Daley

Hi Katie-

I am writing from City CarShare to assure you and our members that our system does not interfere with the car’s driving software. The system we use is like a car alarm; we can prevent a car from starting in case someone leaves it unlocked or if a member tries to take a car when s/he doesn’t have a reservation. Our in-car technology is a stand alone system and can only stop the car from being started when the car is already turned off. In others words, it can’t turn the car off once the car is started. Once the car is started, our system only calculates how far someone has driven. It cannot interfere with the car’s driving operation.

Our smart cars have an automated manual transmission with paddle shifting that can be awkward for drivers new to this technology. If you’ve had to call to reboot the system it was not because of the car–it had to do with our reservation system telling the car you weren’t supposed to be driving. The most common causes of this is when a member tries to pick up a car early or from the wrong location.

Thank you for allowing me to clarify this issue, and as always, thanks for sharing!


Andy Bochman

This article doesn’t read as hype to me. A wide variety of software is being conceived and (often rapidly) built for several new and extremely complex networked domains. While the previous commenter points our examples of successful, single purpose automotive control system code implementations, the author is discussing scenarios that are infinitely more complex. As such, a proactive approach to risk management for the Smart Grid, new software-managed vehicles and V2G applications is unquestionably a very good idea.

Katie Fehrenbacher

Thanks for the comment Paul, I totally agree with you. Yes, it’s about consumer perception. Cars have been using software for years. But they re increasingly offering more networked communication services and digital interfaces and that will lead to an anxiety over the transition for consumers, and also in media headlines.


Hey Katie,
Lets cut the media hype and talk reality. Electronic fuel injection and Anti-Lock brakes are just two examples of automotive systems that have been standard equipment on cars for DECADES! Both are electronic systems with software at their core and the software is more reliable than the physical printed circuit boards and mechanical parts they control. (ie. the software NEVER fails or wears out)

Most air liners and even the space shuttle are all 100% software controlled, yet there have been virtually no recorded deaths attributed to software failure.

Hysterical media seem to forget that automotive systems like these don’t behave like the half baked / rushed-out-to-market software sold by companies like Microsoft. As you correctly point out, auto makers are far more liable than some cranky software outfit and they design their software accordingly.

None of these so-called regenerative brake software glitches have killed/injured anyone and by the description of the fault it actually sounds close to how normal 100% functional ABS works!

Don’t you remember the now infamous Bill Gates Vs General Motors PR battle?

Absolute CLASSIC!

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