Toyota's unhappy introduction to the software business

Quality control issues at the world's largest automaker are nothing new to Adobe, Microsoft, and other software vendors

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By now, word of Toyota's problems had hit the mainstream press, and the issue escalated from a routine defective-product situation to a full-scale PR boondoggle. As public outcry grew, Toyota hired the independent engineering firm Expedient to conduct a thorough investigation of the electronic throttle-control software on multiple auto models. Last week, Toyota executives testified before Congress that it found no faults in the software. But Toyota, apparently no longer convinced, has said that it will order a second round of tests.

When PR is a higher priority than QA
So should Steve Wozniak feel vindicated? Not really. Ironically, it turns out Woz's problem wasn't a software issue at all, but a simple case of user error. According to John Voelcker of GreenCarReports.com, Wozniak didn't understand that the cruise control system on his Prius works differently than the systems on many other cars. After speaking with Toyota's Lentz, the two were able to settle the matter.

Yet that's the whole trouble. Toyota's handling of Wozniak's complaint only underscores the automaker's mismanagement of the acceleration issue from the very beginning. There are software issues in Toyota cars, but Wozniak's isn't one of them. Wozniak, by virtue of his fame, had access to the press. Because of that, Toyota was forced to listen -- even though the complaint was an insignificant one. But if Toyota had weighed complaints on their merits from the start, it might have uncovered some of the defects that are now triggering recalls of vehicles from as far back as 2001. Instead, it waited until a looming public relations disaster forced its hand.

Auto industry analysts are rightly mystified by Toyota's behavior. This is not a sloppy company. Until now, the Toyota brand has been virtually synonymous with quality, and it has handled past defect issues promptly and effectively.

So why is Toyota only now investigating the possibility that software defects in its cars might be partly to blame for crashes? Honest programmers will admit that it's nearly impossible to guarantee that any software will be completely free of bugs. Should automotive software be any different? As the issue unfolds and the number of recalled Toyota vehicles mounts, industry watchdogs are now investigating whether electronic control systems deserve closer regulatory scrutiny.

The bigger issue, however, is that Toyota isn't alone in how it handles customer complaints. The cycle of ignoring the issue, blaming the user, suggesting hardware fixes, and then only grudgingly admitting a problem is all too common in the software industry. Microsoft is a repeat offender -- on many occasions it has failed to act on critical bugs for months. Adobe too is guilty. These are just the biggest examples; they are not alone.

Software vendors can do better. The rise of the Web has ushered in a golden age of communications. Yet while almost daily we hear how companies plan to use social media for marketing and PR purposes, customer communication in the other direction is still given short shrift. Too often, bug reports and other customer complaints are treated like hostile attacks, when in fact they represent valuable business intelligence. The key is to listen.

This article, "Toyota's unhappy introduction to the software business," originally appeared at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in software development at InfoWorld.com.

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