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Software development QA issues run parallel to automobile manufacturing mistakes

Proceeding a Webcast session with Theresa Lanowitz earlier this week, Lanowitz and I entered the post Webcast debriefing room (basically a private phone conference line) where we had the opportunity to pick one another’s brain. Somehow, Toyota was brought up and we ended up finding some common ground in our interests, even those outside of software development and testing–the automotive industry. Both Lanowitz and I agreed, the auto industry is (and has been) suffering from many of the same ailments we are concerned with in software.

The first spark was Toyota and the quality assurance disaster they are currently sorting through. And then a documentary we had both seen “Who killed the electric car” also found its way onto the discussion palette. Both topics were ones we were very passionate about. For me especially, it was the car angle. How the American auto manufacturer GM had really dropped the ball–by killing a market they were the first to enter (the electric vehicle market).

GM was quick to recognize that the combustion engine was a motor we could not rely on infinitely. They knew that one day oil and gas would be either depleted or so expensive that it was no longer affordable to anyone in their consumer base. They decided to build the first electric car, the EV1, which was based and sold on the Saturn platform.

After being at the blunt end of scrutiny and ridicule from their investor’s (Mostly made up of Oil and Gas distributors) GM decided to pull the plug on the project and recall–all 77 EV1’s already sold and on the road. They based the recall on “potential software, and electronic complications”, which they had uncovered in post-sale testing. They arrived in trucks in front of every EV1 owner’s household and loaded up these forward thinking vehicles. Their final destination was one of two places, a handful of fortunate EV1’s made it into auto museums, the bulk of them (just under 75) were dismantled and buried in an Arizona desert.

Lanowitz was more or less baffled by GM’s plug pulling on their production line electric car, but the conversation quickly moved onward to Toyota. There is a real debate going on in the media over whether or not this Toyota fiasco is related to a mechanical issue or to their drive-by-wire computer controlled throttle. It’s a good question, and no one seems to have all the facts but it leads to a sensitive area of technology–with all these various software vendors building function into modern vehicle drive trains, braking systems, radios, communication systems, etc–could there be a problem of over-integrating systems?

Let me give you the benefit of my extensive background in the automotive space. Fifteen years ago, the level of engineering we see today was virtually non-existent. Sure, there were computers mounted in vehicles which controlled the basics of the engine by monitoring rpms, transmission temperature and fluid levels–but they weren’t in constant contact with all other aspects of the vehicle. They were very, very basic, if something broke they signaled a light to flick on the dashboard, and that is about it.

These days, every system is interacting with every other system. The brakes communicate with the radio, the radio is speaking to the door locking sensor, the door locking sensor is dependent on the engine speed–it is like being in a crowded room with numerous conversations going on, all about different topics and somehow everyone is directly involved. It will only get more complex.

As experts on SearchSoftwareQuality have been saying for years now, software is becoming increasingly complex–and automotive integration is mimicking that level of complexity. These days if there is a vehicle issue, you bring it to a mechanic, this mechanic (believe it or not) probably spends just as much time in front of a diagnostic computer as he or she does under the hood. There may come a day, in the not too distant in the future where a run of the mill mechanic will need a Master’s degree in computer engineering just to become certified.

You software testers dealing with multiple platforms and continuous integration are probably plagued with similar issues and nodding your heads in agreement. But in either industry, if huge strides are taken to keep quality high in these software based systems, then perhaps someday soon we can lay many of these modern quality and integration issues in the Arizona desert alongside GM’s first electric vehicle.


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