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Lexus struggles with software bug: What this means for automakers

A software update bug caused glitches in the informatics systems of some American Lexus vehicles. What if this happened in a self driving car?

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    The rear of a Lexus SUV equipped with Google self-driving sensors is seen during a media preview of Google's prototype autonomous vehicles in Mountain View, California in 2015.
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American Lexus owners faced problems this week after a faulty software update snarled up their vehicles' infotainment systems. In an age when software is an essential part of vehicle functionality, what does this malfunction mean for auto manufacturers – particularly as they look ahead to the future of driverless cars?

"I do think that driverless vehicles will have a transformative effect on our economy," industry analyst James Hodgson tells The Christian Science Monitor, but trusting cars could be more important than ever before. 

Lexus has been "working around the clock," the automaker said on Twitter, after car owners who attempted to use their vehicles' GPS or radio systems were greeted by malfunctioning screens and unworkable climate controls due to a buggy software update. A simple reset at a Lexus service department could provide a fix, the company says. 

This incident may seem small and isolated, but with vehicles now the "most visible and familiar example of the Internet of Things," this coding glitch could cast doubt upon the dependability of the increasingly connected machines that we rely on for our daily lives.  

"Lexus has an excellent reputation for reliability," David Bailey of Aston Business School told the BBC, "but these days that's not just about having trustworthy mechanical parts but it is also electronics and software." 

"There are typically more lines of code in a car than an aircraft," said Professor Bailey, "and you only have to get one part wrong for it to cause these types of problems." 

In 2010, Toyota faced problems when its cars began to experience "sudden acceleration" issues, resulting in consumer complaints and safety concerns.

Experts say that in the modern age, when many cars have built-in navigation systems and the ability to link to smartphones, automakers must do more to reassure consumers with concerns about system safety.

In light of the advent of autonomous, computer-driven cars, which tech guru and Tesla CEO Elon Musk has said will likely be an industry all its own within the next several years, auto companies may have even more to answer for in terms of safety.

In a study released in May of this year by the Sustainable Worldwide Transportation research group at the University of Michigan, researchers Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak found that just 15.5 percent of Americans surveyed are comfortable with the idea of fully self-driving cars.

Some experts say, however, that as tempting as it may be to worry, consumers should not necessarily be concerned.

"They [automakers] are going to approach the design process differently for autonomous vehicles," Mr. Hodgson told the Monitor in a phone interview, saying that there will likely be different standards for programming autonomous vehicle programs than there are for informatics such as radio programs.

Even the stereo, which was affected by Lexus's update, can create an unsafe situation, robotics law expert Ryan Calo told the Monitor. For example, buggy software might cause the radio to blare suddenly, startling the driver and causing an accident.

Tesla recently introduced a software update to control the whole vehicle, Dr. Calo tells the Monitor, although he says Lexus' update is technically not critical to safety. 

The result, he says, is that "The line between control-critical and entertainment systems is not perfectly clean."

As a result of consumer concerns and potential safety regulations as the driverless car industry develops, automakers will need to find a new way to test and prove software safety, and convince the public of that safety, Calo and Mr. Hodgson tell the Monitor. 

Due to the nature of driverless cars and the direction of car ownership, however, some experts believe that while consumers will always want to trust their vehicles, they may not always want to own them.

It's just one way that driverless vehicles could revolutionize the economy. "I believe that the future of transportation could be a sort of Uber for driverless cars," Hodgson says. 

With this market in mind, Uber is beginning to explore partnership with driverless car manufacturers, and manufacturers themselves have formed a coalition to convince the public of their safety.

"Self-driving technology will enhance public safety and mobility for the elderly and disabled, reduce traffic congestion," the group, which includes Ford, Volvo, Uber, Lyft, and Google, said in a statement, "improve environmental quality, and advance transportation efficiency."

The next step, Calo says, is for automakers to work with the government to establish a legal framework to deal with autonomous vehicles before they hit the streets. In conjunction with public affairs efforts, heightened programming standards, and very transparent safety testing, automakers should be able to gain the public's trust, he says. 

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