How ‘feature bloat’ is driving the chip shortage

New cars, loaded with tech, are on a collision course with buyers

What if the auto industry’s best solution to the chip shortage was not simply making more chips? Suppose we instead got a handle on what might be called “feature bloat” — the tendency, fueled by sales competition, to slather new cars with as much technology as possible?

Surveys show that consumers want — and expect — that their next car will be laden with whiz-bang features, demand that is a driver for the current bloat. CES 2022, which wrapped this week, provides a glimpse of what the future car might hold. Bosch said to expect double-digit annual growth in automotive software until 2030; Panasonic showed off an augmented reality head-up display with eye tracking, plus the ELS Studio 3D audio system with 1,000 watts and 25 speakers. BMW unveiled future technology that will allow owners to change the exterior color of their cars and display digital art inside them, not to mention a rear 31-inch Theatre Screen with built-in Amazon Fire TV.

And that’s just a tiny sampling of the car tech shown at CES 2022.

But if that tech is unreliable — as some of it has proven — then it’s not a win for consumers. Meanwhile, market reality has resulted in a collision course for buyers on the ground: higher prices and spotty availability of some of the features they say they most want.

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

Take the Chevrolet Volt. The plug-in hybrid had more than 10 million lines of code when it was introduced for the 2011 model year;  today’s mid- to high-level vehicles have something like 100 million lines, said Michael Hill, vice president of engineering at Altia.

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

The bad news for consumers: the feature bloat is unavoidable and getting worse.

“Today’s cars are being burdened with features consumers aren’t necessarily asking for or demanding,” Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports told TechCrunch.

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

“And it’s not because their powertrains are problematic,” Fisher said. “Instead, automakers saw an opening with the early EV adopters to package the cars with all the technology they could come up with. They’re trying to differentiate the product–and justify the high cost. And that results in cars that aren’t very reliable.”

Buggy software caused by inefficiency and coding problems are being driven by a shift — or more accurately, 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,” Williamson said. “They’re pushing to develop completely new cars in two years or less. And that means using building blocks that are maybe intended for laptops and not necessarily custom-built for automotive applications.”

It’s not only expensive EVs that are enticing consumers with tech; it’s happening in many mid- and upscale product lines.

“It’s more feature bloat than software bloat,” said Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst for e-mobility at Guidehouse Insights. “The software is only there to make all the features work, and do we really need 30-way power adjustable seats with five massage-pattern options? Or sequential taillights, multi-zone automatic climate control and audio systems with concert hall and studio settings? The insatiable desire to one-up the competition is what’s driving this.”

The crux for automakers

Automakers that take the all-tech-is-good-tech option avoids the trickier, yet ultimately smarter approach.

“The hardest thing is to figure out what the feature set should be and stick to it,” said Mike Bell, senior vice president of digital at Lucid Group. “It can be easier to say, ‘We’re not sure what we’re doing, so we’re just going to throw in the whole kitchen sink.’ The smart approach is to decide what customers actually want to do, 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 problems is that, contrary to tech company norms, automakers contract much of their software work out to suppliers. “You can’t farm it out and expect to have a good experience,” he said. “At Lucid, instead of buying from the tier whatevers, we do our own software and our own integration.”

Automakers are beginning to acknowledge the new tech dominance.

“Launching a car now is not just about the hardware, but about the software, too” according to Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath.  He added in an interview that the ability to do over-the-air updates of that software “makes a big difference in consumer satisfaction. We can quickly respond to issues that come up.”

Great expectations

A major factor here is consumer expectations. It’s true that auto buyers don’t need certain features, but they do appear to want them. A November study from CoPilot, a data-driven car-buying app, suggests that automakers are simply responding to public demand. It found that 65.7% of current lease holders expect better feature functionality in their next car or truck, and slightly more than 56% think they’ll pay about the same or less than they do for their current vehicle.

Similarly, a September CarMax survey of more than 1,000 car owners found that almost 50% “said they wish their current car had more tech features.”

Buyers in their 20s and 30s, a highly desirable demographic for automakers, were the most likely to say that tech features were “extremely important” to them as a purchase consideration. Overall, 15.9% considered the tech package extremely important; 36.7% saw it as very important; and 31.8% were in the “somewhat important” camp. Only 3.9% said it was “not at all” important.

Given the chip shortage, tech expectations are not likely 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 may take three to six months just to get a car, and people aren’t used to that,” Ryan said. “The second issue is that shoppers may find that their new car actually has fewer features than the one they’re turning in.

Premium sound, wireless charging, even heated seats may not be available because of the chip shortage. And people used to paying maybe 95% of the sticker price may find themselves hit with stickerplus.”

But the desire for high-tech cars is not likely to go away. Jessica Caldwell, executive director, Insights, at Edmunds, told TechCrunch that automakers are touting their cars and trucks as multi-purpose offices and living spaces on wheels, and buyers are appreciative.

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