Mechanical failure is a genuine threat to drivers, whether it is due to a part that wasn’t recalled or poor service at a repair shop, but what happens when the car’s software fails? Improvements in built-in computer systems allow for a better driving experience, but they can also lead to serious accidents and injuries if mishandled or improperly updated. Depending on where and how it happens, automotive software failure can put vehicle occupants at serious risk of traumatic injuries.
How Automotive Software Works
Automobile software has become increasingly more complex and sophisticated. However, the more complicated the program, the more potential there is for failure. Many newer vehicles today have more than 100 electronic control units (ECUs) connected by network communications, many of which are required to run necessary safety functions.
These ECUs act as black-box assemblies for the vehicle, often containing an embedded microprocessor, firmware, circuitry, memory, and network connection. Software embedded in ECUs may be supplied by a party in the automotive supply chain or designed and coded by the manufacturer. Assembly with ECUs requires testing the entire system to ensure all components are functioning correctly.
In modern vehicles, the engine, brakes, airbags, and other vital features need software to function, and most of this software is stored in the ECUs. If an ECU has an error, it can effectively lead to accidents and injuries as a result of the failure in the car’s electronic stability, automatic braking, and forward collision avoidance systems.
Crashes Caused by Automotive System Errors
When software fails and key vehicle systems stop working, it can lead to a crash. For example, certain Nissan Rogues have a problem with the software in their automatic emergency braking systems. The vehicle suddenly comes to a stop without warning, placing occupants of the car at risk of suffering a rear-end collision or T-bone accident in an intersection. One consumer complained that the vehicle stopped suddenly while he was driving over a train crossing, as reported on Consumer Affairs.
Automobile manufacturers have a legal responsibility to ensure the vehicles they make are safe to own and operate. This means quality assurance for software in the vehicle, including cybersecurity (keeping hackers out), non-functional safety (preventing memory leaks that can cause problems over time), and functional safety (ensuring that brakes and other key systems work properly). When they fail in that responsibility, they may be held liable for resulting injuries.
How Do Automobile Manufacturers Respond When Software Defects Arise?
If an automotive software defect is not major, the manufacturer may respond in one of several ways:
- Ignore a minor defect that poses no threat to safety or performance.
- Upgrade firmware when the vehicle is serviced if the defect is not critical to safety but represents potential costs.
- Include updated firmware in replaceable subassemblies.
- Do over-the-air upgrades for compatible ECUs and models. With this method, manufacturers may not be required to disclose software defects or fixes to consumers or regulatory agencies.
If a software defect with serious safety implications is discovered, the manufacturer may be forced to issue a recall. There were 63 automotive recalls associated with software components from 2012 through June 2015, as reported on Parasoft. These recalls affected 6.4 million vehicles, and further research showed that these recalls are increasing as more and more vehicles are fitted with automotive software.
While we expect these automotive systems to improve our lives and reduce the risk of an accident, there is a dangerous margin for error. When those accidents do occur, victims can be left with extensive medical bills and a large amount of property damage. However, if you have been hurt in a crash caused by vehicle software failure, you may be able to recover the costs of your injuries, lost wages, mental anguish, and pain and suffering in an auto part product liability claim.
To ensure a single cent is not left out of your case, reach out to Wingate, Russotti, Shapiro & Halperin, LLP. Automotive software failures are complicated cases and require a keen eye for detail to successfully litigate. But our New York car accident attorneys have more than 50 years of experience and are not afraid of a challenging case. Call us at (212) 986-7353 to schedule a free consultation and learn how we can represent you after a collision.