How ‘feature bloat’ is driving the chip shortage

What if the auto industry had a solution to the chip shortage that didn't involve making more chips? If we could get a handle on the tendency to put as much technology as possible in new cars, we might be able to stop it.

Consumers want their next car to be laden with whiz-bang features, which is a driver for the current bloat, according to surveys. The future car might hold a glimpse of what it might hold. Panasonic showed off an augmented reality head-up display with eye tracking, and the ELS Studio 3D audio system with 1,000 watt 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.

There are many car tech shown at the Consumer Electronics Show.

It is not a win for consumers if that tech is unreliable. Market reality has resulted in a collision course for buyers on the ground, with higher prices and spotty availability of features they say they want.

Mike Juran, CEO and co-founder of Altia, said that they don't have a chip shortage and that they have software bloat. There is too much software out there.

Take the car. The plug-in hybrid had more than 10 million lines of code when it was first introduced, and today's mid- to high-level vehicles have something like 100 million lines.

It is at the level you might have seen in a jet fighter a decade ago. There is no bug-free software.

The bad news for consumers is that feature bloat is getting worse.

Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports, said that consumers aren't necessarily asking for or demanding features in today's cars.

CR found that high-end electric SUVs are among the least reliable.

Fisher said that it was not because of their powertrains. The early EV adopters allowed the automakers to package the cars with all the technology they could come up with. They are trying to justify the high cost. That results in unreliable cars.

Buggy software is being driven by a shift in the vehicle development cycle due to inefficiency and coding problems.

People are used to seeing new phones every year, and automakers are trying to keep up with consumer electronics. They want to develop completely new cars in two years or less. Building blocks that are intended for laptops and not custom-built for automotive applications are what that means.

It is happening in many mid- and upscale product lines, as well as expensive EV that are appealing to consumers with tech.

Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst for e-mobility at Guidehouse Insights, said it was more feature bloat than software. The software only makes the features work, so do we really need 30-way power-adjustable seats with five massage-pattern options? Automatic climate control and audio systems with concert hall and studio settings? The desire to one-up the competition is what is driving this.

The crux for the automotive industry.

The all-tech-is-good-tech option is avoided by automakers.

Mike Bell, senior vice president of digital at Lucid Group, said it was the hardest thing to figure out what the feature set should be. 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 figure out how to give customers the best experience, then decide what to do. There should not be seven ways to do something.

Bell spent 17 years at Apple and recruited some of his team from there. He said that one of the biggest problems is that the software work is done by suppliers. He said that you can't expect to have a good experience. We do our own software and integration at Lucid, instead of buying from the tier.

The new tech dominance is starting to be acknowledged by the automakers.

Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath said in an interview that the ability to do over-the-air updates of that software makes a big difference in consumer satisfaction. We can respond quickly to issues that come up.

Expectations are great.

Consumer expectations are a major factor. It is true that auto buyers do not need certain features, but they do want them. A data-driven car-buying app suggests that automakers are responding to public demand. More than half of current lease holders think they will pay the same or less for their next car or truck than they do for their current vehicle, and more than six out of ten of them expect better features in their next car or truck.

A September CarMax survey found that almost 50% of car owners wish their current car had more tech features.

The buyers in their 20s and 30s are the most desirable demographic for the automotive industry. The tech package was seen as very important by 36.7% of the people, and it was also seen as somewhat important by 31.8%. Only 3.9% of people said it was important.

Tech expectations are not likely to be met.

Pat Ryan, CEO and founder of CoPilot, said in an interview that consumers are likely to collide in three areas. It may take three to six months to get a car, and people aren't used to that. The second issue is that shoppers may find that their new car has less features than they think.

Premium sound, wireless charging, even heated seats may not be available because of the chip shortage. People used to pay a lot of the sticker price.

The desire for high-tech cars is not likely to go away. According to Jessica Caldwell, executive director, Insights, at Edmunds, buyers are appreciative of the fact that the cars and trucks they buy are multi-purpose offices and living spaces on wheels.

She said that consumers are willing to pay for these highly contented vehicles because they are enjoying the growing number of features and amenities. The chip shortage has made it difficult to produce models with more options and features, but the consumer interest is still there. As long as there is a consumer appetite, automakers will find a way to feed it.