Software Quality Haunts Honda


I’m strictly an “American Car” guy. Every car I’ve ever owned since my 1988 Ford Escort when I was in college has been American made.

It’s not so much that I’m “gung-ho” pro-Union or some staunch advocate of only buying products made in the USA – although if two products were comparable I’d probably give the “Made in the USA” label the nod. Honestly, I’ve looked at foreign vehicles when car shopping, but the best deals I've found continue to come from my local Ford dealer.

So you’ll excuse me for taking a quick moment to snicker when yet another one of the vaunted Japanese auto makers reveals that it is human after all and has to recall vehicles for issues due to flaws with a major component. (OK, yes, I know Ford has had recalls in the last two years as well, but nobody has ever turned the Toyota or Honda names into acronyms meaning “Found On Road Dead.”)

Back in 2009, Toyota’s recall of more than 14 million cars worldwide due to issues with unchecked acceleration made front-page news. More recently, Nissan had to recall SUVs and pickup trucks because radiator fluid was leaking into the automatic transmissions. Then there’s Honda, which recalled 2.5 million cars across the globe, including 1.5 million here in the U.S., due to problems that could damage the automatic transmission…and those problems are software related.

The Honda Hiccup

According to a statement released by Honda about the software issue:

“Certain 2005-2010 4-cylinder Accord, 2007-2010 CR-V and 2005-2008 Element vehicles will be included in the voluntary recall. Without the updated software, the automatic transmission secondary shaft bearing in the affected vehicles can be damaged if the transmission is quickly shifted between each of the reverse, neutral and drive positions, as may be done in an attempt to dislodge a vehicle stuck in mud or snow. If the bearing is damaged in this unusual scenario, it can cause the engine to stall or lead to difficulty engaging the parking gear. The update to the vehicle's automatic transmission control module software will ease the transition between gears to reduce the possibility of damage. No injuries or deaths have been reported related to this condition.”

Now the fortunate thing about the Honda recall is that unlike the Toyota one in 2009, nobody has been injured. That notwithstanding, this does not belie the fact that a software flaw went unchecked and, as a result, people have seen their vehicles – usually the second most expensive purchase most people make in their lives after their homes – either damaged or placed in peril of suffering damage. If you lived in the Northeast this past winter and owned one of these vehicles, you either experienced this problem or got very lucky.

So kudos to Honda for stepping up and deciding to fix the problem, but this once again begs the question: why was this software flaw not found before it became a component of vehicles that have been sold to the public as far back as 2005?

All ‘Elements’ Assessed ‘Accord’-ingly

It’s one thing for an automobile to have a mechanical problem – a physical piece of metal or machinery that, over time, wears down and leads to larger issues with the vehicle, as was the case with the Nissan recall. Unfortunately with those kinds of problems, only time can reveal them.

But Honda’s problem was a software glitch. Nothing wore the software down. The same line or lines of code that cause “the automatic transmission secondary shaft bearing in the affected vehicles [to] be damaged” were there in 2005. It wasn’t until the automatic transmissions in the Elements, CR-Vs and Accords started having problems that Honda even considered that there was a problem with the software.

Therein lies the bigger problem: Honda didn’t know, but it should have.

Any company dealing in software, especially one as large as Honda, needs to perform due diligence on its software before it exposes the software to the public. Performing thorough structural analysis prior to deployment to ensure the software met the standards for application software health would have identified the issues so they could have been fixed.

The time to address software issues is not after the automatic transmissions of 2.5 million automobiles are jeopardy of being damaged, even if the situation that would cause such damage is an “unusual scenario” (although it’s not so unusual where I live in the Northeastern U.S.). The time to ensure sound structural quality of application software is from the start, during the build process.

That goes not just for Honda and its auto-making brethren, it goes for any company that builds or customizes software. Until they do make automated structural analysis a standard operating procedure, software skeletons will continue to haunt organizations.

Jonathan Bloom
Jonathan Bloom Technology Writer & Consultant
Jonathan Bloom has been a technology writer and consultant for over 20 years. During his career, Jon has written thousands of journal and magazine articles, blogs and other materials addressing various topics within the IT sector, including software development, enterprise software, mobile, database, security, BI, SaaS/cloud, Health Care IT and Sustainable Technology.
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