About six months after Gary Gilpin rented a Subaru Outback from a California dealer, the screen went blank and wouldn’t come back on. Mr. Gilpin took the car to the dealership for what he thought was a quick reset.
“It took a whole month before I got my car back,” said Mr Gilpin, who runs a yacht charter and brokerage business.
Some people would have just fumed. Mr. Gilpin continued.
He is among thousands of car owners, encouraged by plaintiffs’ attorneys, who have joined class action lawsuits accusing automakers of selling vehicles with faulty entertainment and related systems. Their complaints are as numerous as they are varied: screens that freeze, flicker or turn off; sound that cuts out or explodes unexpectedly at high volume; reversing cameras failing. Often the issues relate to how the hardware interacts with Apple’s CarPlay software or Google’s Android Auto software, which allow drivers to use their phones to navigate, communicate or listen to music and podcasts.
Buggy car software may seem like a simple inconvenience. But the plaintiffs successfully argued that a faulty dashboard display is a serious distraction and a potential safety hazard.
The suits are a symptom of automakers’ difficult transition to the digital age and their struggle to integrate the latest technologies into vehicles, which must meet safety requirements that smartphones and other electronic devices do not meet. Older automakers are losing ground to Tesla and other young electric car makers who have put much more emphasis on software. And in their own cars, established automakers are effectively ceding more power to Apple and Google, who dominate the digital world.
So far, the settlements automakers have had to pay are relatively modest. In 2020, Subaru settled the lawsuit brought by Mr. Gilpin and others; it cost the company about $8 million, including attorney fees and an additional two years of warranty protection.
In December, Honda of America and its subsidiary Acura agreed to settle a similar class action lawsuit for an estimated $30 million, according to plaintiffs’ attorneys, including extending the warranty on systems that buyers say , were defective. Neither Subaru nor Honda admitted wrongdoing. Honda declined to comment and Subaru did not respond to requests for comment.
The precedent-setting case was brought by Ford Motor customers who complained about flaws in the MyFord Touch system. The automaker settled that lawsuit in 2019 for $17 million without admitting any wrongdoing.
The sums hardly compare to the hundreds of millions of dollars that Toyota and other automakers have paid out to people injured by faulty airbags, or the billions that Volkswagen has paid out to owners of cars equipped with software designed to mask the levels of illegal pollution.
But the stakes for automakers go far beyond the cost of lawsuits.
As the lawsuits indicate, traditional automakers have struggled to develop navigation systems and other services that perform as well as those found in Apple and Google devices. They are also far behind Tesla, which loads its cars’ large interactive screens with internally developed software and does not support CarPlay or Android Auto.
Established automakers have been forced to divest valuable real estate on dashboards in Silicon Valley, while remaining the target of consumer anger — and class action lawsuits — if anything goes wrong.
Before Big Tech invaded the interiors of cars, automakers were lords of their kingdom, dictating terms to suppliers. But Apple and Google have financial resources and software expertise that even the auto giants can’t match.
“The game has completely changed,” said Axel Schmidt, senior managing director at Accenture who manages the consulting firm’s automotive division. The big automakers, he said, “are not used to dealing with partners that are much stronger and bigger than them.”
The influence of software makers on the automotive industry will only grow as vehicles increasingly incorporate driver assistance systems and other digital technologies.
Automakers are in a tough spot. They operate on timelines that are out of step with the speed of digital technology. A new vehicle typically takes four years to develop, including painstaking safety testing. Owners often drive the same car for over a decade, an eternity in the tech world.
“The time window to develop vehicles and install the hardware in those vehicles is quite different from that of a cell phone,” said Mark Wakefield, co-head of automotive and industrial practice at AlixPartners, a consulting firm. “When a vehicle is finished, it’s finished. The software is never really finished.
Apple introduces a new iPhone about once a year and releases new versions of its operating system even more frequently, as does Google. Automakers are faced with the near impossible task of designing entertainment systems that work seamlessly with software and devices that have yet to be invented.
“After every update we get complaints, CarPlay is not working,” said Serhat Kurt, who operates a website, macReportswhich provides advice on troubleshooting issues with Apple devices.
Mr Kurt blamed both automakers and Apple – automakers for being “not very good with software”, and Apple for not doing enough to ensure software updates work with vehicles older.
The lawsuits so far have blamed established automakers, not Apple or Google. Sean Matt, a Seattle partner at Hagens Berman, the law firm that represented the owners in the lawsuit against Honda, said he “can sympathize with the engineering challenge” automakers face in designing systems that work seamlessly with ever-changing smartphone software.
But Mr Matt added: ‘They give you a product and say it will work, and ultimately the blame is on them.’
That doesn’t mean Apple and Google are immune. If the Subaru lawsuit hadn’t been settled, there “would have been a real possibility that they could have been brought in,” said Benjamin Johns, a partner at Pennsylvania-based Chimicles Schwartz Kriner & Donaldson-Smith, who represented the owners. from Subaru.
A Google spokeswoman, Sofia Abdirizak, said in an email, “Our general practice is to provide manufacturers with sufficient notice before major updates.” She declined to comment further.
Apple, which provides automakers and other software developers with beta versions of iPhone updates before their general release, declined to comment.
Such lawsuits aren’t just a problem for older automakers. Tesla was born in Silicon Valley and its software is considered far more advanced than that of the Detroit giants. But last year, under pressure from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Tesla recalled more than 100,000 Model S and X models built before 2018 because their touch screens could fail. The defect is also the subject of a class action lawsuit, which Tesla is contesting.
Tesla is able to send software updates to its cars over cellular connections, regularly adding features even to cars that have been running for years. A large majority of cars made by older automakers cannot be remotely updated in the same way.
As established automakers incorporate more and more technology into their vehicles, faulty software seems likely to continue to generate lawsuits. The Chimicles company is working on two potential cases based on complaints from car owners, Mr Johns said, although the lawsuits have not yet been filed. He declined to name the automakers, but the company advertises on its website for owners of Mazda or Volvo cars whose dashboard screens have frozen or suffered other problems.
Automakers are “getting better at technology,” Johns said. “But the technology continues to evolve.”