Updating Green Car Software Is a Balancing Act

When Microsoft (s MSFT) or Adobe find a bug in their software, they can issue a patch or new version that can often be downloaded and installed in a matter of minutes. But as our cars get loaded up with more and more smarts, what will it take to iron out the kinks?

Some Honda Civic hybrid owners have recently learned first hand about the process for updating vehicle software. Honda sent letters to 100,000 Civic hybrid owners from the 2006, 2007 and 2008 model years earlier this month, notifying them to bring their cars in to have the battery management system updated to the version used in Honda’s 2009-2010 Civic hybrid models. The letter also warned that the batteries “may deteriorate and eventually fail” earlier than anticipated if they don’t get the software patch.

As HybridCars has pointed out, “reports of battery failure have been extremely rare” in the decade since hybrids were introduced in the U.S. But the recent problem with Civic hybrid batteries, and the still-unfolding responses from Honda, its customers and emissison regulators offer a glimpse into the thicket of regulatory, environmental, consumer education and public image challenges that may lie ahead for automakers as they race to launch a new generation of greener cars with advanced technologies.

Public Image

In online discussion forums a number of users have been complaining that Honda’s “fix” has taken a hefty bite out of their fuel economy — as much as 10 MPG in some cases. Some drivers have expressed fears to the Los Angeles Times that “Honda has decided to sacrifice their vehicles’ performance in order to avoid the huge cost of replacing thousands of faulty batteries.”

Other Civic hybrid owners, meanwhile, report improved mileage with the new software. “To some drivers, it may feel like they’ve gotten a new car,” said Honda spokesperson Chris Martin. It all depends on a host of variables including driving style, terrain, the car’s age and the battery condition, he said.

All of this comes amid a larger wave of anxiety over computer- and software-dependent cars — especially as electric cars roll out in the next few years with even more reliance on software, computing and communication networks to manage a host of services and battery charging.

What’s Involved

The update from Honda is meant to distribute the stress of charging and discharging more evenly throughout the battery’s cells and thereby preventing the battery from degrading prematurely and preserving power for critical events when acceleration is necessary, said Martin. To get the update owners need to bring their car to a dealer, and there, a technician will access what’s called the “data link connector,” a port that’s tucked under the dash near the driver’s seat.

According to Martin, the update will take no more than 30 minutes to complete, although customers may end up having to leave their car at the dealer for a day depending on scheduling.

More New Tech, More Problems?

As CARB air pollution specialist John Swanton explained, component and system failure is nothing new. “We have componentry that fails on vehicles quite a bit,” he said. “A lot of very boring stuff happens, we catch it, it gets repaired.” But “especially with new technologies,” some problems just don’t present themselves in testing, he said. “You find out in the field.”

By some accounts, “high-end cars now have more software than jets,” the Society of Automotive Engineers’ Caroline Michaels, a standards engineer, told us earlier this year. And over time, the introduction of greener vehicles — hybrids, plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles — will add to the trend of vehicles relying more and more on embedded software.

Growing reliance on software in greener cars does not mean, however, that we’ll have to update next-gen vehicles as frequently as we do browsers today, Martin said. “It’s a fairly complicated endeavor to do one of these updates on a car,” he said, and automakers want to minimize the number of times an owner has to come into a dealer for updates.

That said, tweaking vehicle software has gotten easier in some ways. In the 1990s, Martin said automakers would more commonly have replaced the entire computer in a vehicle. Now, he said, it’s often a simpler “reflash of memory.”

Regulators Come Into Play

When a software update can dramatically change the way a vehicle operates for years to come, the consequences can extend much further than in the world of the web and personal computers, where the latest version or patch may let your browser run faster or crash less frequently.

As Swanton put it, “A clean car can be made into a dirty car,” and software has the power to do just that. As a result, regulators that we ordinarily expect to keep tabs on the brawn of emissions control (problems with catalytic converters, for example) also have to monitor the brains in order to get an accurate picture of fuel economy and emissions performance.

In the case of Honda’s 2006-2008 Civic hybrids, Swanton explained, the cars are certified as partial zero emission vehicles, or PZEVs, for California and the 13 other states that have adopted its vehicle emission and efficiency standards.

The status carries some perks (financial incentives, carpool lane access, etc.), as well as responsibilities. CARB has set a 10-year or 150,000-mile warranty standard for batteries in vehicles designated as PZEVs (a standard that General Motors’ (s GM) extended-range electric Chevy Volt won’t won’t meet when it launches later this year with an 8-year, 100,000-mile warranty).

Swanton emphasized that “10 years for battery life is no slouch.” Tthe national standard for batteries and other emission-related components is eight years or 80,000 miles. But here we are just a few years into that period, and Honda has already crossed the 4-percent threshold for failure. Once 4 percent of vehicles have exhibited a problem, said Swanton, the manufacturer is legally required to notify CARB, and tell the agency how it plans to address the issue.

As Swanton explained to us in an interview back in July, “the point is to warranty expensive parts that are likely to cause emissions problems if they fail, but may not incapacitate the vehicle.” In other words, if the battery in a hybrid or plug-in hybrid fails, the car could conceivably stay on the road, belching out smog-forming emissions comparable to “a pretty poorly running gasoline vehicle,” he said.

Finding a Fix

The time frame for an automaker to come up with a repair or interim solution is negotiable, Swanton told us this week, but there’s a serious incentive to figure out a fix ASAP. The longer it takes, the more vehicles out on the road may exhibit the problem. “Every delay is in some cases hundreds if not thousands of parts failing,” said Swanton, and the automaker is “on the hook to repair all those parts.”

With the Civic hybrids, “just replacing the battery isn’t going to do it,” he said. Three or four years down the road, we’d likely see the same problem, because a new battery wouldn’t address the core issue of managing which cells and modules in the battery pack get charged when, and preventing premature degradation.

Swanton explained that what CARB has questioned is Honda’s claim that the software changes will have no effect on the vehicles’ emission performance. “The software can change,” he said, but it “cannot in any case increase the emissions of the vehicle.”

The agency has requested more information from Honda, and has had engineers meeting with the automaker this week, to determine whether or not the software update will affect the car’s emissions performance — under all the standards and lab-controlled testing that the hybrid went through when it first got certified.

At this point, Swanton tells us CARB will have no additional information on Honda’s proposed solutions and the agency’s evaluations until early October. In the meantime, Honda has 100,000 hybrid drivers it has to work to keep happy, and many more prospective hybrid buyers to worry about winning over as new competition rushes onto the green car market.

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Image courtesy of daveiam.