In the 1990s auto makers uncorked the genie of electronics and started designing systems that could do everything from warming up the driver's seat to enhancing safety with complex automatic steering and braking maneuvers. But as cars became more dependent on sophisticated electronics, the number of breakdowns mushroomed, and cars made by innovation leaders BMW and Mercedes (DCX ) suddenly became much less reliable.
Public anger over quality problems in 2001 and 2002 sent German auto makers racing back to the lab. Unwilling to renounce innovation, their engineers are working overtime to root out electronics bugs. BusinessWeek Senior European Correspondent Gail Edmondson got an update from BMW's chief of electronics, Ulrich Heiden, on the company's crusade to design and build cutting-edge cars that are also tops in quality and reliability. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: Why does BMW continue to pack more electronics into its new models, including the 3 Series you have just unveiled? Does the customer really need all that complexity?
A:Yes indeed. Electronics innovations improve the handling, agility, safety, and comfort of cars. The new Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system in the 3 Series we are just launching, for example, includes several electronics systems that work together to increase driver control and safety. One improved function is the ability to correct the car's steering when it starts to skid on a wet or slippery road. We built in the kind of reaction that an expert driver would have when the car skids.
The stability control system also triggers a reflex to dry the brakes when streets are wet, so they grip better. It automatically moves the brake pad close to the brake when the driver suddenly takes his foot off the gas, shaving a second off the car's reaction time in the case of emergency.
Q: How much progress has BMW made in tackling quality and reliability problems caused by the high degree of electronic-driven innovation in your cars? How do you measure internally whether you are getting a grip on better quality?
A:We know how complex the electronics system is from the moment we design the car. Every electronic function in the car is made up of a couple of mathematical formulas. We look at the formulas and how they work together, and we can make a prognosis about how many errors will crop up in the software of the entire car. The job then is to find the mistakes before the cars hit the market.
Q: What has BMW done over the past three years to weed out bugs before cars are in the showroom?
A:First we added specialists in the development phase for each electronic function, especially for the networking. A lot of bugs appear in the linking of the car's internal systems. It's like the difference between building a cell phone and building the network that allows the cell phone to make calls. The network is infinitely more complex and prone to glitches.
Second, we are standardizing the microprocessors and the operating system for the car. In the past, some suppliers made their own systems and when [the different systems] came together in the car, they weren't compatible.
Third, we have built a more extensive testing process since 2001. We start in the lab, testing components, systems, and the entire car. Then we take it to the street and test all three again.
For each model, there is a test fleet of about 40 to 50 cars worldwide. They are driven in two shifts a day (16 hours) for one-and-a-half years. The entire car, including the trunk, is full of test and measurement equipment. When the driver notices a mistake, he presses a button that records the software pattern before and after the error. Every mistake the driver notices will be solved at the root.
Q: What have your electronics engineers actually learned about the quality problems that bedevil highly innovative cars? Can they be systematically solved?
A:We learned that we needed more networking experts to master the problems arising from linking a car's electronic systems and getting them to communicate with each other. We also learned that we have to go to great lengths to find every mistake -- and it can be very time consuming.
For example, our testers once picked up an error with the automatic steering system. We examined everything -- even the additive to the steering oil. In the end, it was the result of a temporary plastic part that had been used only on the test cars [because using the plastic was faster than manufacturing the real metal part]. The plastic was taking on static electricity and interrupting the electronic steering system.
Q: Toyota (TM ) still ranks No. 1 in quality and reliability. What do you think is the trade-off between greater innovation and greater reliability?
A:The customer has the right to a car without any glitches. If we make a car that is twice as complex as another, we can not make even one more mistake. We've done everything to solve all known problems in the lab -- not after cars hit the street.
And if we can't solve a problem, we don't introduce a new electronics system in our cars -- we wait until they're error-free. We can compete in the JD Power rankings.
Q: Will BMW's efforts to improve quality and reliability be visible in the next round of JD Power rankings in June, 2005, and other quality tests?
A:I'm convinced we'll see it. We've done everything to build error-free cars.
Edited by Patricia O'Connell