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Auto journalist’s Blazer EV road trip turns into a software nightmare

by Staff

I want to preface this story with a caveat: Lemons exist (and I don’t mean the fruit). Sometimes, you just get a bad car. And generally speaking, I have a very empathetic view toward the job of vehicle software engineers. The functions that customers expect their vehicles to perform have grown immensely in the past 10 years, going from basic command and control interfaces to fully featured smartphone operating systems with multiple applications and always-on internet connectivity. Building that into a product as complex and long-lived as a car isn’t easy!

But a recent story from one auto journalist borrowing a Blazer EV paints a pretty damning picture of GM’s software, a company that has already faced major criticism over its decision to remove Android Auto and CarPlay functionality.

Kevin Williams over at InsideEVs recently took a Blazer EV out on loan from GM on a road trip that would require multiple stops at DC fast charging stations to complete. We really liked this car on our first drive, the most “mass market” Ultium platform EV from GM yet — and we were pretty optimistic about the infotainment stack, too. But there’s a big difference between a first drive event under controlled conditions with engineers on-hand and an unsupervised vehicle loan.

I don’t want to beat around the bush too much here, so here’s what you need to know about what happened.

  1. The Blazer EV’s infotainment OS (powered by Android Automotive) all but completely died multiple times on this journalist’s drive. As in, very concerning screen flashing which then culminated in a totally black display. No apps, no navigation, no charge routing. Bizarrely, the software was able to be revived — temporarily! — by things like incoming calls, but the OS would crash again on the trip.
  2. When plugged into an Electrify America charge station in Wytheville, Virginia, the Blazer EV briefly fast charged before going into charge fault limp mode. This limits the vehicle’s charge rate (5kW max, it seems), power, and top speed — not to mention illuminates a bunch of concerning warning lights on the dash. At this point, Kevin no longer felt comfortable trying to complete the trip and drove the car to a local Chevy dealer, leaving it there for GM to retrieve.

I recommend you read InsideEV’s full story, linked above, too — it gives you a better sense of how this all unfolded over the course of the day or so (28 hours total) that Kevin had the car.

The most interesting thing I noted outside the story here is that one commenter said that the specific Electrify America charge station Kevin used had also put their Hummer EV into limp mode. This isn’t terribly surprising: Ultium-platform EVs and Electrify America stations seem to be particularly prone to fighting for some reason. But here’s that comment.

Like I said in the comments in the post announcing your road trip, watch out for those EA chargers. I also had to leave my Hummer at the Wytheville GMC/Chevrolet dealer over Thanksgiving for the service dept. to clear a corrupted charge session courtesy of that very EA station. To say I was annoyed at having to put my wife and child in a hotel in Wytheville while a family member drove through the night to pick me up so I could get one of our ICE vehicles from home and drive back through the night/morning to end up with 2 hours of sleep those two days would be putting it mildly. And a month earlier when an EA station in Columbia, SC required another unplanned overnight stay, but at least then I was alone. The truck itself has been great. I haven’t experienced any of the infotainment issues the Blazer did in this trip over my 5500 miles in the Hummer. It’s been perfect besides EA’s stations fluctuating current and tripping software protections requiring service visits to clear. There’s been no lasting damage so at least the truck is protecting itself…I just wish it didn’t lock out any attempts to charge afterwards. FWIW Wytheville GMC cleared the codes and I’ve driven almost 1000 miles since using Circle K and Chargepoint DC chargers without issue. I mostly charge at home anyway.

insideEVs (commenter)

Now, whether you blame Electrify America or GM for the issues here, to me, is not really the point. The point is that experiences like this one have a deeply chilling effect on the confidence of consumers considering an EV. I have no doubt that GM would be happy to lay the blame for the limp mode experiences like this one at the feet of a “malfunctioning” or otherwise improperly configured charging station. I also wanted to include the entire comment, given that this person overall seems to be happy with their GM Ultium vehicle, and that these experiences seem to by far be the exception, not the rule. But when you have to stay in a hotel — twice — because your car pops up an error message necessitating a dealer visit after using a particular brand of charge station, that’s not what I’d call great UX.

The infotainment issues suffered by Kevin while driving the Blazer EV, though, seem totally unrelated to the charging problems. And given how much people today rely on in-vehicle navigation to get around safely — and doubly so given GM Ultium cars don’t have Android Auto or CarPlay as a backup — this is pretty concerning. No doubt, GM will continue to issue software updates and fixes to the Blazer EV as more vehicles are sold and it collects more data on bugs and crashes, that’s the unfortunate reality of deploying a complex piece of software as part of a hardware product in today’s day and age. This experience will, hopefully, be a relative rarity. But we know that even companies generally thought of as leaders in vehicle software can still seriously screw up that software — look at Rivian’s OTA debacle just last month.

The biggest concern Kevin’s experience raises is that carmakers seem unprepared for the reality of deploying heavily software-dependent products to customers who demand a “just works” experience similar to that of their smartphones and tablets. While technology like OTA updating makes responding to problems easier, it’s far from a panacea, and updates can and do go wrong. The role of vehicle software is more important than ever and, I believe, will become the greatest differentiator between vehicle manufacturers in the coming decades. Customers will learn of carmakers’ reputation for software just as they have for maintenance and mechanical reliability, and stories like this one are going to be a big part of defining that customer preference narrative.

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