We’ve been writing it and saying it for years — the future of the auto industry comes down to batteries and software. This has been a top reason why people have been so bullish on Tesla and the company now has a market cap higher (much higher) than every automaker other than Toyota. (Full disclosure: I own shares in Tesla/TSLA.)
Volkswagen Group has certainly recognized the importance of software, as I wrote at length in March. One highlight: “Volkswagen intends to in-house software much, much more than it ever has, going from developing ~10% of its own software to developing 60% or more of it by 2025.” (Full disclosure: I own shares in Volkswagen/VWAGY)
Despite the strong new focus, reporting has been telling us that Volkswagen Car.Software has been struggling. Multiple reports have indicated that the ID.3 is delayed due to the software not working, and more recent reporting out of Germany (h/t Teslarati) claims that even the 8th generation Golf, Volkswagen’s bread or butter, is suffering software challenges. Volkswagen had to stop delivering the Golf until the problem was resolved. This is the essence of it:
“Volkswagen has to stop the delivery of its bestseller Golf in the eighth generation a few months after the start due to software problems. During internal investigations, it was found that individual vehicles of the model ‘could have a non-reliable data transmission of the software’ on the control unit of the emergency call function (online connectivity unit), the car maker announced on Friday. This is a so-called compliance case, since new models in the EU must have had such an emergency call facility for two years.”
That doesn’t sound like a disastrous fail that will cause much actual demand to Golf sales, but if it’s enough to stop deliveries, it’s not minor.
As Elon Musk has said, software is hard, and finding great software engineers is a big challenge, even for Tesla. What about for Volkswagen?
Though, when reading or writing about this issue, I often recall that early Tesla Model 3s were delivered with much of the software not functional. That surprised me, since I figured the long delays in mass production would have given the software team plenty of time to smoothen out and tie ribbons on the Model 3’s launching software system. Of course, today, Tesla Model 3 software is great — I love it and it’s a big reason why I bought my car. But there are still many features people have asked for repeatedly and some that Elon Musk long ago agreed to implement that aren’t in the system. Not being a software engineer, the only real explanation that comes to mind is — software is hard. The point of the Model 3’s initially delayed software features and remaining minor issues or lacking features is that Volkswagen’s software challenges shouldn’t be surprising and may even be blown out of proportion a bit. I don’t know.
By the end of this year, we should see quite well how much of an issue this is for Volkswagen. If the ID.3 rolls out approximately as expected but without ideal software, or is delayed slightly, I think we’ll look back at these software fears as unwarranted FUD. If we see a severely crippled car and delayed rollout, though, the blame has repeatedly been put on the software.
One of the quotes that make me think the problems are as big as they’re made out to be was this one from an unnamed member of Volkswagen Group quoted by Süddeutsche Zeitung: “It’s an absolute disaster. We just can’t get people.” Again, this echoes what seems to be Elon Musk’s prime complaint. If the Silicon Valley company at the top of automotive engineer (including software engineer) dream jobs has this complaint, how bad is it for Volkswagen.
The writers, Stefan Mayr and Angelika Slavik, added: “In fact, as an employer, VW struggles to get young software experts excited. Programmers are desperately sought in all industries, many of these coveted young people decide against the auto industry. And sometimes important managers are also lost: IT boss Martin Hofmann leaves VW at the end of the month, he was responsible for IT across the Group and thus also plays a key role in the development of e-mobility.”
We’ve had commenters — seemingly with links to Volkswagen — claim that the issues are not nearly as big as they’re made out to be and all is on track. Importantly, though, we don’t have evidence of that. We’ll have to wait to see if the ID.3 can live up to its hype and many EV enthusiasts’ dreams. Reportedly, the plan is to roll out a basic ID.3 without the better software bells and whistles that should now show up in refined versions of the car/software. That’s what the reporting out of Germany claims, at least. How much that diverges on a specific feature level from the original plan is unclear, and how adequate and appealing this initial software is, well, that remains to be seen.
In the meantime, my question in the headline wasn’t meant to be answered in this piece. That is the question I’m asking, and this article is basically one long extension of that question. If you have more insight into Volkswagen software, especially as it relates to electric vehicles, chime in and help us all to fill in the gaps between some scattered, vague reporting.
Images courtesy Volkswagen
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