Volkswagen and the Ying and Yang of Technology

“Any color so long as it’s black.”

So said Henry Ford – or at least so says Henry Ford’s autobiography….

When or where or if he said it is irrelevant – he was making a point that was really about production efficiencies and less about customer opportunity.

Yet today, besides the myriad choices we have as to color, style and options – just about every car being manufactured can be configured and personalized based on its resident software.

In a fascinating New York Times article, “Complex Car Software Becomes the Weak Spot Under the Hood,” the three authors share that while Facebook is composed of about 60 million lines of code and Science Fiction like the Large Hadron Collider has only about 50 million lines, new high-end cars contain 100 million and more lines of code….

“Cars these days are reaching biological levels of complexity,” said Chris Gerdes, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University.

So one can only wonder what Henry Ford’s view would be about the news from Volkswagen, this week, as the full extent of its scandal became apparent.

Bottom line…millions upon millions – more than 11 million vehicles so it seems…had special software that alerted the system to emission testing and then gave fraudulent results.

The very same software systems that can save lives with collision warning and emergency breaking; that can make your ride more pleasant with fully customizable interior controls and your overall experience more efficient by monitoring your usage – can contain hidden in those millions of lines scam-ware…and you would never know.

And, as if that’s not enough…system security is a growing and real concern as hackers have proven that they can drive you right off of the road and cause damage and mayhem that is too horrifying to contemplate.

Technology has always given us ying and yang choices – or as the famed Spiderman would say (thank you Teddy, my 6-year-old grandson) “with great power comes great responsibility…”

Succinctly reported (by The New York Times) in this quote from Thomas Dullien, a well-known security researcher and reverse engineer (think on that notion!!!), “The reality is that more and more decisions, including decisions about life and death, are being made by software…but for the vast majority of software you interact with, you are not allowed to examine how it functions.”

Look – there was a time when a product had to work – out of the box, off the showroom floor, from the store, whatever – work 100% — or you returned it and never bought one again.

Today we live in a world of versions and releases and patches and fixes – we have been socialized to accept product failure as the price of entry into great things, and we dutifully plod on waiting for the next release, hoping that they will fix whatever it is that isn’t working.

And if that is the price we pay – if that is what it takes to make technology work harder and more efficiently for us – if that is what it takes for the next big life/game changer to come to fruition – I guess that it’s a fair price and most of us have made and accepted that Devil’s deal.

Yet…I still wonder what Henry Ford might have said…Listen:

“Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.” – Henry Ford

And there you have it.

Philip Koopman, an associate professor at the department of electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University was quoted in that same New York Times report as follows: “There’s no requirement that anyone except the car companies looks at the code.”

HMMMMM – I guess we have to paraphrase or amend his thought:

Quality means doing it right even when no one can look…is allowed to look…

Seems to me the opportunities are bigger for the folks who get both of those points…No?

What do you think?

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