Software-Related Vehicle Complaints, Recalls, On The Rise

By Ted Ings, Executive Director

Vehicle software problems are on the rise – will you survive the digital age?

Modern electronics and computer controls have made possible the reliable, efficient vehicles of today. But, as with any technology, there are tradeoffs. These days, an increasing number of customer complaints and recalls are caused by software-related problems.

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A study conducted by Automotive Warranty & Recall Report found programming issues tripled between 2011 and 2015 [Source: Halvorson]. Meanwhile, J.D. Power and Associates discovered software-related recalls increased by 45% between 2014 and 2015 [Source: Meier].

In other words, programming problems are a huge concern – and it’s time your dealership got up to speed.

More computers, more code – more bugs

Modern vehicles have dozens of computers running millions of lines of code. In fact, new cars have more software than current Air force fighter jets [Source: Eisenstein]. And, because humans write that code, there is significant room for error.

To understand just how temperamental modern automotive software is, check out the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) website. The government agency recorded 2,011 programming-related [Source: Meier] consumer complains between 2010 and 2015. And that number is steadily growing.


Now, the NHTSA website lists a countless number of software-related concerns. Issues range from windows unintentionally rolling up and down to radios that don’t work. Take, for example, the 2018 Honda Accord with its fickle backup camera (recall 18V629000) or the 2017 Subaru Outback (TSB 15-199-16R) with its problematic infotainment display.

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Software-related concerns aren’t relegated to convenience features, either. Programming affects all aspects of vehicle operation, including the powertrain and safety systems. The largest recall of 2017 [Source: Wong], which was from Fiat Chrysler, involved faulty code in the occupant restraint controller. Under certain conditions, the bug could cause the roll rate sensing system to fail, disabling select airbags as well as the seatbelt pretensioners.

How to prepare your dealership

Vehicle programming problems are becoming more widespread all the time. These tactics will help your service department address the issue.

Remind techs: look up TSBs early on

Software-related problems can be difficult – if not impossible – to pinpoint. That’s why, nowadays, checking for TSBs is more critical than ever. Remind your techs to look for bulletins and campaigns early on in their diagnostic process. Doing so will save time and money, while increasing customer satisfaction.

Don’t rule out software

Remember: a computer network’s tentacles are far-reaching; nearly every part of the vehicle is affected by software. Bad programming can cause anything from a harsh-shifting transmission to a faulty HVAC system, so never rule it out.

Double-check for recalls

Recalls are on the rise; encourage advisors to check for open campaigns with each customer they serve. Techs can also doublecheck a car’s software calibration numbers. Both measures let vehicle owners know you’re looking out for them.

Stay up-to-date on training

To be successful, modern technicians must be extremely computer savvy; some would say, part IT professional. Invest in training to keep your service team up-to-date on the latest technologies.

Reassure the customer

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Customers get frustrated when programming updates either fail to fix their problem or make the problem worse. And, unfortunately, that scenario plays out all too often.

According to the J.D. Power 2016 Vehicle Dependability Study, of a group of owners with a particular navigation problem received a software update to address the concern. Of those individuals, half said the update did not fix the issue [Source: Halvorson].


Naturally, in such a situation, the customer often blames the service department. So, you have to jump in and do damage control; reassure the vehicle owner you’re working with the manufacturer to find an answer. Thoroughly explain the nature of the problem and keep them updated throughout the process.

No end in sight

The number of electric and autonomous technologies is growing, increasing the amount of code each vehicle requires. Cars become more complicated every year, and at the same time, the likelihood of programming errors grows.

The good news is vehicles are becoming increasingly less problematic overall. A few mistyped lines of code can’t stop the steady progression of automotive technology. Consumer surveys from agencies such as JD Power and Associates find that cars get better every year [Source: Ford]. Plus, programming issues are relatively easy to fix once diagnosed.

In other words, new cars don’t have more problems – they just have different problems. Stay on top of the latest technology and you’ll be able to tackle the vehicles of today, as well as those of tomorrow.