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Software Complaints and Recalls Rise As Vehicles Add Technology

CARS.COM — As automakers add more technology to their vehicles, rising complaints about glitches in the software controlling vehicle systems may be undermining the confidence of already tech-wary drivers.

Related: FCA Recalls 1.4 Million Cars Over Hacking

Software-related owner complaints and recalls both have spiked in the past five years, according to data released by auto researcher J.D. Power and Associates. So far this year, consumers have made 202 formal complaints to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration related to vehicle software. That nearly equals the pace for 2015, which finished with a record 615 complaints, up from 505 in 2014, according to data from J.D. Power’s SafetyIQ, a service that collects complaint and recall data from NHTSA for automakers.

And we’re not just talking about beefs with the infotainment system or Bluetooth pairing woes. With software controlling more of vehicles’ key systems, there is an increasing correlation between complaints and software-related safety recalls, which rose 45 percent between 2014 and 2015, according to J.D. Power’s analysis of the data. Overall, it found 189 software-related safety recalls affecting more than 13 million vehicles have been issued in the past five years, with 141 listing an increased risk of a crash as a consequence of the defect and 44 posing potential injury risk. Other types of risks were listed for the remainder.

The top areas for software-related recalls include powertrain, electrical systems, engine cooling and vehicle control systems. The rise in recalls risks damaging consumer acceptance of technology to increase features, efficiency and safety.

“Consumer complaints are the canaries in the coalmine for automobile manufacturers when it comes to anticipating future recalls and longer-term customer satisfaction,” said Renee Stephens, vice president of U.S. automotive at J.D. Power, in a statement. “Software-related problems have become much more prevalent and, if not addressed, could begin to erode consumer trust in new automotive technology.”

In addition to more recalls, J.D. Power also tallied a rise in automaker technical service bulletins pertaining to software for issues that have not risen to the level of a safety recall, but nonetheless generate many owner complaints.

Even worse for owner satisfaction: software “fixes” that don’t fix the problem. The J.D. Power 2016 Vehicle Dependability Study found that of owners reporting a navigation system problem, a third had gotten a software upgrade within the past six months. But more than half said the upgrade did not fix the problem.