How “Feature Bloat” drives the chip shortage – TechCrunch


What if the the auto industry’s best solution to the chip shortage wasn’t just making more chips? Suppose we instead got a grip on what might be called “feature bloat” – the competitive-fueled tendency to coat new cars with as much technology as possible?

Surveys show that consumers want – and expect – their next car to be packed with fast-paced features, a demand that is a driver of the current bloat. CES 2022, which concluded this week, offers a glimpse of what the future car could offer. Bosch anticipates double-digit annual growth in automotive software through 2030; Panasonic showed an augmented reality head-up display with eye tracking as well as the ELS Studio 3D audio system with 1,000 watts and 25 speakers. BMW has unveiled future technology that will allow owners to change the exterior color of their cars and display digital art in them, not to mention a 31-inch theater screen on the back with a built-in Amazon Fire TV.

And that’s just a small selection of the car technology shown at CES 2022.

But if this technology is unreliable – as some of these have proven – then it is of no benefit to consumers. Meanwhile, market realities have created a collision course for local buyers: higher prices and patchy availability of some of the features they say they want the most.

“We don’t have a shortage of chips; we have software bloating, ”said Mike Juran, CEO and co-founder of Altia, which provides graphical user interfaces and tools to many automakers. “There is far too much unnecessary software out there.”

Take the Chevrolet Volt. When it was introduced in the 2011 model year, the plug-in hybrid had more than 10 million lines of code; Today’s mid- and full-size vehicles have around 100 million wires, said Michael Hill, Altia’s vice president of engineering.

“It’s at a level you might have seen in a jet fighter 10 or 15 years ago,” Hill told TechCrunch. “And there is no such thing as error-free software.”

The bad news for consumers: The expansion of functionality is inevitable and just keeps getting worse.

“Today’s cars are loaded with features that consumers don’t necessarily want or need,” Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing for Consumer Reports, told TechCrunch.

According to Fisher, the 2021 CR Auto Reliability Report found high-end electric SUVs to be among the least reliable vehicles.

“And that’s not because your drivetrains are problematic,” said Fisher. “Instead, automakers saw the first EV adopters as an opportunity to package the cars with all the technology they could think of. You’re trying to differentiate the product – and justify the high cost. And that leads to cars that are not very reliable. “

Faulty software caused by inefficiency and coding problems is driven by a shift – or more precisely, an acceleration – in the vehicle development cycle, according to Jason Williamson, vice president of marketing at Altia.

“People are used to seeing new phones every year and automakers are trying to keep up with consumer electronics,” said Williamson. “You are pushing for completely new cars to be developed in a maximum of two years. And that means using building blocks that might be intended for laptops and not necessarily designed specifically for automotive applications. “

It’s not just expensive electric vehicles that are luring consumers with tech; it happens in many medium and high-end product lines.

“It’s more of a feature blot than software bloat,” says Sam Abuelsamid, lead research analyst for e-mobility at Guidehouse Insights. “The software is only there to get all functions working, and do we really need 30-way electrically adjustable seats with five massage pattern options? Or sequential rear lights, multi-zone automatic air conditioning and audio systems with concert hall and studio settings? The insatiable desire to outperform the competition is what drives it. “

The crux of the matter for automakers

Automakers who choose the all-tech-is-good-tech option avoid the more difficult, but ultimately smarter, approach.

“The hardest part is figuring out what the feature set should be and sticking to it,” said Mike Bell, senior vice president of digital for the Lucid Group. “It can be easier to say, ‘We’re not sure what we’re doing, so let’s just throw that whole kitchen sink away.’ The smart approach is to decide what customers actually want to do and then figure out how to give them the best experience. There shouldn’t be seven ways to do something. “

Bell spent nearly 17 years at Apple and recruited part of his Lucid Tech team from there. He said one source of the problem is that automakers, contrary to the norms of technology companies, outsource much of their software. “You can’t outsource it and expect to have a good experience,” he said. “At Lucid we don’t buy everything from the stage, we make our own software and our own integration.”

Automakers are starting to recognize the dominance of the new technology.

“When a car is launched on the market, it’s not just about the hardware, but also about the software,” says Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath. In an interview, he added that being able to update this software over-the-air “makes a big difference in consumer satisfaction. We can react quickly to problems that arise. “

Great expectations

Consumer expectations are a key factor here. It’s true that car buyers don’t need certain features, but they seem to want them. A November study by CoPilot, a data-driven car buying app, suggests automakers are simply responding to public demand. It found that 65.7% of current lessees expect better functionality in their next car or truck, and just over 56% think they will pay about the same or less than their current vehicle.

Similarly, a September CarMax poll of more than 1,000 car owners found that nearly 50% “said they would like their current car to have more technical features”.

Buyers between the ages of 20 and 30, a very desirable demographic group for automakers, were most likely to say that technical functions are “extremely important” as a purchase argument for them. Overall, 15.9% thought the tech package was extremely important; 36.7% thought it was very important; and 31.8% were “rather important” in the camp. Only 3.9% said it was “not at all” important.

Given the shortage of chips, technical expectations are unlikely to be met.

Pat Ryan, CEO and founder of CoPilot, said in an interview that consumers are likely on a collision course in three areas. “First, it can take three to six months just to get a car, and that is something people aren’t used to,” Ryan said. “The second problem is that buyers may find that their new car actually has fewer features than the one they are giving up.

Premium sound, wireless charging, even heated seats may not be available due to the lack of chips. And people who are used to paying maybe 95% of the sticker price may be hit by stickerplus. “

But the longing for high-tech cars should not go away. Jessica Caldwell, executive director, Insights, at Edmunds, told TechCrunch that automakers are touting their cars and trucks as multi-purpose offices and homes on wheels, and buyers are grateful.

“Consumers are enjoying the growing number of features and conveniences, and most importantly, they are willing to pay for these highly satisfied vehicles,” she said. “The chip scarcity has made it difficult to produce models with more options and features, but consumer interest is still there. And as long as there is consumer appetite, automakers will find a way to feed it for the sake of their own profits and market share. “


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