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Edmunds: The Pros and Cons of Software Controlling Your Car

Software was a big topic for automakers attending CES 2023 in January. BMW, Stellantis, Volkswagen and a joint venture between Honda and Sony showcased upcoming or concept vehicles that rely heavily on computers and code. The realization was clear: more and more vehicles are controlled from top to bottom by software, not by hardware. In some cases, the future is already here.

What will it be like for buyers when vehicles are dominated by bits and bytes instead of gears and gaskets? Edmunds experts break down what’s in stock.


The phrase “software-defined vehicle” is an industry term used to describe the difference between a traditional car enhanced by technology and one powered by technology.

While cars of the past 20 years have received touchscreens and have plenty of engine and safety-related processing power, these software functions are largely stuck in time once the car rolls off the assembly line. The future looks like almost every vehicle function will be controlled by software, which offers the potential to improve functions over time.

Another important difference is upgradability. Think of the smartphone. Their manufacturers regularly update their software seamlessly to fix bugs and violations and add features. Software-defined vehicles work similarly. They have high-speed WiFi and cellular connections, which automakers use to send software updates to their vehicles via the cloud. Owners do not need to take their vehicles to a dealer or service center.


Tesla is a pioneer in adding software-based features to its vehicles. Over the years, improvements have been made to the touchscreen interfaces and new features such as video games have been added. Updates have even been issued that improve vehicle performance. Startup EV brands Lucid and Rivian are following suit, using over-the-air updates to add new features, functionality and bug fixes to their vehicles.

The software also enables the introduction of features that would not have been possible in the past. Genesis, Hyundai’s luxury division, uses facial recognition and fingerprint scanning with its new all-electric GV60 crossover. The physical key is required to set up both functions, but after that the owner can basically operate the car as easily as a smartphone.

Established companies are also stepping in. Last summer, Ford used software to activate its BlueCruise hands-free driving system in tens of thousands of F-150 and Mustang Mach-Es. The vehicles already had the hardware for the system installed; The over-the-air update made it complete. It was applied to the cars wirelessly without the need for a dealer visit.

Maintenance is another potential benefit. These highly digital vehicles can monitor preventative and predictive maintenance and even diagnose problems remotely. It takes the guesswork out of what could go wrong and what needs adjustment, without a visit to a workshop or dealer.


Software enables new functions that would not have been possible in the past. But sometimes these features aren’t that great in practice. Tesla and Rivian, for example, use touchscreen-based controls to direct airflow from the air vents in the cabin. It seems neat in theory, but turns out to be a tricky and distracting process when driving in the real world. Old-school vents that you adjust by hand just work better.

Software crashes and glitches are also problematic. Problems that PC users are all too familiar with can appear in cars. It can be a touchscreen that goes blank and doesn’t work while driving, erratic operation of certain controls, or advanced driver assistance features that aren’t being reviewed as fully as they should be before being fitted to vehicles.

The risks of software crashes and data breaches are real issues. It cannot be ruled out that someone with malicious intent will take over the operation of a car and cause damage. In addition, some experts praise the technology and advise caution when it comes to protecting personal data: the more data collected from drivers, the greater the potential for hacking.


The software will continue to evolve to transform the vehicle ownership experience. Test drives with various new vehicles will give you a sense of how much digital functionality you prefer. You may have the opportunity for a quick fix or update over Wi-Fi. But tech-shy buyers will likely prefer a vehicle with a more traditional design, which could involve buying used cars.


This story was provided to The Associated Press by automotive website Edmunds.

Kristin Shaw is an Edmunds Associate. Follow on Twitter

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