For the last few weeks I've been going about the task of researching new cars. The lease on my 2007 Toyota Prius is almost up and I've got to decide whether to lease a new one or switch to a different brand. A few months ago I would have definitely opted to lease another Prius since I've been happy with it, but the recent news about accelerator problems on various models led me to reconsider whether the once vaunted Toyota quality is slipping, and not just its floor mats.
At the beginning of February, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak raised his concern that Toyota may actually have a software problem and not a hardware problem. In a CNET news article, Wozniak is quoted saying, "Toyota has this accelerator problem we've all heard about. Well, I have many models of Prius that got recalled, but I have a new model that didn't get recalled. This new model has an accelerator that goes wild, but only under certain conditions of cruise control. And I can repeat it over and over and over again--safely." And he went on to say, "This is software. It's not a bad accelerator pedal. It's very scary, but luckily for me, I can hit the brakes," he said.
A week later, Toyota announced it was conducting a voluntary safety recall on approximately 133,000 2010 Model Year Prius vehicles and 14,500 Lexus Division 2010 HS 250h vehicles to update software in the vehicle's anti-lock brake system.
Yet even as Toyota had to deal with all this negative news, MotorWeek, a television automotive show, announced on February 11 that the Toyota Prius had won the top honor of "Best of the Year" in its 2010 Drivers' Choice Awards "for making improvements on virtually every front including, fuel efficiency, power and versatility." It also won MotorWeeks Drivers' Choice Award for "Best Eco-Friendly" vehicle.
Today Toyota's problems continue to play out in the media. Last week a scary report of a runaway Prius in San Diego that took its driver James Sikes on a 30-minute ride before it could be stopped had many people worried. Toyota said its preliminary investigation into the incident resulted in findings "inconsistent" with the driver's account. Investigators say it may never be known what happened during that wild ride, but all of this news has led me to wonder if our automobiles are getting so complex that stories like these are likely to become more common.
A March article in the McKinsey Quarterly ("Tackling IT complexity in product design" by Marcus Schaper, a principal in McKinsey's Frankfurt office) tackles this topic head on. Schaper notes, "In the past five years, the average number of tech-enabled engine control units in each new vehicle produced by the automotive industry has risen to 80, from 20." This is common in other product categories as well and is making it harder for industries producing these electronic-laden products to control costs and stay aligned with business strategies.
Schaper goes on to say that today's tech-enabled products depend on "the successful integration of multiple hardware and software components," leading to an IT architecture that is "far more intricate than the specifications on traditional products." These high-tech products require different processes and skill sets as companies figure out how to weigh the various challenges these new products raise. Both technological and business considerations must be considered when these products are being developed, otherwise companies can find themselves with features that are sensational, but costs that are out of control.
Schaper says companies need to follow an integrated approach, which means "aligning the product vision with design, the road maps of individual products with the broader electronics platform strategy, and, ultimately, the business side of product management with the engineering side." This requires "a new form of collaboration," he continues, among various functions. Business and IT perspectives need to fuse, he said, "creating an alignment between the product's overall strategic objective and the appropriate tech-enabled architecture."
It is far too soon to know whether Toyota's problems are due in part to misalignment between Toyota's business and technical teams. But no company wants to have to face the excruciating daily news coverage of its technical problems the way that Toyota has had to. Clearly this will lead to a loss of customers-whether I'll be one of them is still not certain-and a loss of revenue. But as more and more consumer products depend on technology to deliver the latest whiz-bang features, companies will need to study whether the processes they have put in place to develop them will help them avoid a future technology debacle.