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How to Improve Vehicle Software: Open Up the Data, Dive In

A string of recent events has helped to focus a strong — and not too favorable — light on the growing amount of software embedded in the cars we drive: Apple (s AAPL) co-founder Steve Wozniak made headlines last month complaining that his Prius had a “scary” software glitch. Not long afterwards, Toyota (s TM) recalled its 2010 Prius and Lexus HS 250h hybrids for a software update related to the anti-lock brake system. And on top of that, documents have emerged in the last couple weeks showing that federal regulators asked the automaker back in 2007 to install software to prevent sudden acceleration in its vehicles (an action Toyota didn’t take until this year).

The scrutiny has prompted calls for tougher standards for vehicle software. Well, SAE International, the auto industry’s main standards development group, has just launched a database system that in the coming years could help move vehicle software quality in the right direction. Called the SAE Software Assessment Repository, the web-based system will allow automakers to get a more detailed look at potential software suppliers’ strengths and capabilities. The database will give those suppliers a place to post and share the most salient results — rather than just a general capability level — from the assessments that are already widely used in the industry.

According to SAE’s Caroline Michaels, Ford (s F) and General Motors (s GM) plan to mandate use of the repository for their suppliers, and SAE has “begun talks” with BMW and other automakers, which Michaels anticipates will follow Ford and GM’s lead in making it mandatory. (We’ve reached out to Ford, GM and Toyota for comment.)

“It’s important that you don’t have a recall because of software,” said Michaels. But far from a hasty response to the current sensitivity to high-tech cars as a result of Toyota’s recent recalls, the database system has been in the making for nearly five years, as a response to “the incredible rise in automotive software,” she said.

By some accounts, she said, “high-end cars now have more software than jets.” And over time, the introduction of greener vehicles — hybrids, plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles — will add to the trend of vehicles relying more and more on embedded software.

The SAE J2746 Software Assessment Repository Task Force came together in the fall of 2005 with a mission to help answer a range of questions — from whether the quality of automotive software is generally improving, and whether it’s getting cheaper, to whether suppliers are marketing their software appropriately.

Part of the repository’s intended function — making it easy for an automaker to see what capabilities a potential supplier has in a particular area (such as powertrain, safety or chassis systems) — seems to highlight a remarkable gap in the industry. As SAE’s Embedded Software Standards Committee put it in a technical report during the development of the repository, “When a customer is interested in the capabilities of a supplier, the relevance of those capabilities to the customer’s need is critical.”

In other words, if a company is looking for software related to the powertrain, it wants a supplier with a strong track record developing high-quality software for powertrain systems. It wants to know how long ago the supplier was assessed, and how long the team has been together, Michaels explained. But in the past, the industry has not had a standard process for sharing detailed assessment results in those specific areas.

That has left a door open for some less-than-stellar marketing practices. Michaels explained that without this type of standard reporting system, a large software supplier could acquire a small developer that had performed well in assessments, and then market the entire organization using those assessment results. She described it as “manipulating the system.” There simply hasn’t been enough detailed information reported on a uniform basis across the industry. Providing guidance on how automakers should interpret those details, the database is also meant to help, “Prevent surprise issues due to loose interpretations of the results,” according to the technical report.

Still, Michaels emphasized that the creation of this repository is not an indication that the assessments themselves are lacking. In fact, all of the data going into the new system is already captured in today’s assessments — but how it’s reported varies from supplier to supplier. “Reporting needs to be uniform,” Michaels said. In part, that will “help developers who are capable to get more exposure.”

That’s one reason they have to welcome the new database. SAE has also put some competitive safeguards in place: “The repository was not developed to allow suppliers to view each other’s capability,” said Michaels. Automotive software suppliers will be able to set who gets to view their assessment data, and for how long. In addition, the system is meant to help reduce assessment costs for suppliers and OEMs alike.

“This is an important step both in terms of improving the quality and reliability of automotive embedded software and reducing developmental costs,” Peter Abowd, president of worldwide automotive at Altia and chairman of the J2746 repository committee, said in a statement last week. He added that the repository “promotes higher fidelity and more responsible disclosure of software development capability.”

The repository will also provide a valuable source of data to help improve vehicle software down the road, said Michaels. SAE will be able to mine that data to help determine whether new standards or targets are needed, and if the industry and organization can “do something to improve capability” in a given area.

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