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How ‘feature bloat’ is driving the chip shortage

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How ‘feature bloat’ is driving the chip shortage

What if the auto industry’s best solution to the chip shortage was not simply making more chips? Suppose we instead got a handle on what might be called “feature bloat” — the tendency, fueled by sales competition, to slather new cars with as much technology as possible?

Surveys show that consumers want — and expect — that their next car will be laden with whiz-bang features, demand that is a driver for the current bloat. CES 2022, which wrapped this week, provides a glimpse of what the future car might hold. Bosch said to expect double-digit annual growth in automotive software until 2030; Panasonic showed off an augmented reality head-up display with eye tracking, plus the ELS Studio 3D audio system with 1,000 watts and 25 speakers. BMW unveiled future technology that will allow owners to change the exterior color of their cars and display digital art inside them, not to mention a rear 31-inch Theatre Screen with built-in Amazon Fire TV.

And that’s just a tiny sampling of the car tech shown at CES 2022.

But if that tech is unreliable — as some of it has proven — then it’s not a win for consumers. Meanwhile, market reality has resulted in a collision course for buyers on the ground: higher prices and spotty availability of some of the features they say they most want.

“We don’t have a chip shortage; we have software bloat,” said Mike Juran, CEO and co-founder of Altia, which provides graphical user interface design and tools to many automakers. “There is way too much unnecessary software out there.”

Take the Chevrolet Volt. The plug-in hybrid had more than 10 million lines of code when it was introduced for the 2011 model year;  today’s mid- to high-level vehicles have something like 100 million lines, said Michael Hill, vice president of engineering at Altia.

“It’s at the level you might have seen in a jet fighter 10 or 15 years ago,” Hill told TechCrunch. “And there is no bug-free software.”

The bad news for consumers: the feature bloat is unavoidable and getting worse.

“Today’s cars are being burdened with features consumers aren’t necessarily asking for or demanding,” Jake Fisher, senior director of auto testing at Consumer Reports told TechCrunch.

According to Fisher, CR’s 2021 Auto Reliability Report found that high-end electric SUVs are among the least-reliable vehicles.

“And it’s not because their powertrains are problematic,” Fisher said. “Instead, automakers saw an opening with the early EV adopters to package the cars with all the technology they could come up with. They’re trying to differentiate the product–and justify the high cost. And that results in cars that aren’t very reliable.”

Buggy software caused by inefficiency and coding problems are being driven by a shift — or more accurately, an acceleration — in the vehicle development cycle, according to Jason Williamson, vice president of marketing at Altia.

“People are used to seeing new phones every year, and automakers are trying to keep up with consumer electronics,” Williamson said. “They’re pushing to develop completely new cars in two years or less. And that means using building blocks that are maybe intended for laptops and not necessarily custom-built for automotive applications.”

It’s not only expensive EVs that are enticing consumers with tech; it’s happening in many mid- and upscale product lines.

“It’s more feature bloat than software bloat,” said Sam Abuelsamid, principal research analyst for e-mobility at Guidehouse Insights. “The software is only there to make all the features work, and do we really need 30-way power adjustable seats with five massage-pattern options? Or sequential taillights, multi-zone automatic climate control and audio systems with concert hall and studio settings? The insatiable desire to one-up the competition is what’s driving this.”

The crux for automakers

Automakers that take the all-tech-is-good-tech option avoids the trickier, yet ultimately smarter approach.

“The hardest thing is to figure out what the feature set should be and stick to it,” said Mike Bell, senior vice president of digital at Lucid Group. “It can be easier to say, ‘We’re not sure what we’re doing, so we’re just going to throw in the whole kitchen sink.’ The smart approach is to decide what customers actually want to do, then figure out how to give them the best experience. There shouldn’t be seven ways to do something.”

Bell spent nearly 17 years at Apple, and recruited part of his Lucid tech team from there. He said one source of problems is that, contrary to tech company norms, automakers contract much of their software work out to suppliers. “You can’t farm it out and expect to have a good experience,” he said. “At Lucid, instead of buying from the tier whatevers, we do our own software and our own integration.”

Automakers are beginning to acknowledge the new tech dominance.

“Launching a car now is not just about the hardware, but about the software, too” according to Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath.  He added in an interview that the ability to do over-the-air updates of that software “makes a big difference in consumer satisfaction. We can quickly respond to issues that come up.”

Great expectations

A major factor here is consumer expectations. It’s true that auto buyers don’t need certain features, but they do appear to want them. A November study from CoPilot, a data-driven car-buying app, suggests that automakers are simply responding to public demand. It found that 65.7% of current lease holders expect better feature functionality in their next car or truck, and slightly more than 56% think they’ll pay about the same or less than they do for their current vehicle.

Similarly, a September CarMax survey of more than 1,000 car owners found that almost 50% “said they wish their current car had more tech features.”

Buyers in their 20s and 30s, a highly desirable demographic for automakers, were the most likely to say that tech features were “extremely important” to them as a purchase consideration. Overall, 15.9% considered the tech package extremely important; 36.7% saw it as very important; and 31.8% were in the “somewhat important” camp. Only 3.9% said it was “not at all” important.

Given the chip shortage, tech expectations are not likely to be met.

Pat Ryan, CEO and founder of CoPilot, said in an interview that consumers are likely on a collision course in three areas. “First, it may take three to six months just to get a car, and people aren’t used to that,” Ryan said. “The second issue is that shoppers may find that their new car actually has fewer features than the one they’re turning in.

Premium sound, wireless charging, even heated seats may not be available because of the chip shortage. And people used to paying maybe 95% of the sticker price may find themselves hit with stickerplus.”

But the desire for high-tech cars is not likely to go away. Jessica Caldwell, executive director, Insights, at Edmunds, told TechCrunch that automakers are touting their cars and trucks as multi-purpose offices and living spaces on wheels, and buyers are appreciative.

“Consumers are enjoying the growing number of features and amenities, and most importantly are willing to pay for these highly contented vehicles,” she said. “The chip shortage has made it challenging to produce models with more options and features, but the consumer interest is still there. And as long as there’s a consumer appetite, automakers will find a way to feed it for the sake of their own profits and market share.”

Source: Tech

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Boston Dynamics’ warehouse robot gets a $15M gig working for DHL

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Back in March of last year, Boston Dynamics unveiled its second commercial robot, Stretch. The system, built from its impressive box-moving Handle concept, is designed to bring the company’s advanced robotics technologies into a warehouse/logistics setting – easily one of the hottest categories in robotics, these days.

Today the Hyundai-owned firm announced its first commercial customer – and it’s a big one. Logistics giant DHL has committed to a multi-year, $15 million deal (or “investment” as the parties are referring to it) set to bring the robot to its North American facilities. Specific details on the number of robots being purchased haven’t been revealed, but Boston Dynamics says it’s going to be bringing a “fleet” of the robots to DHL logistics centers over the next three years.

Stretch will get to work unloading trucks to start – a feature its creators have highlighted as a key part of its initial rollout. Additional tasks will be added, over the course of the roll out, in an effort to further automate the package handling process.

Says CEO Robert Playter, “Stretch is Boston Dynamics’ newest robot, designed specifically to remedy challenges within the warehouse space. We are thrilled to be working with DHL Supply Chain to deliver a fleet of robots that will further automate warehousing and improve safety for its associates. We believe Stretch can make a measurable impact on DHL’s business operations, and we’re excited to see the robot in action at scale.”

The partnership will be a key proving ground for Boston Dynamics’ commercial ambitions beyond its on-going Spot deployment. Package handling is an intensive, highly repetitive job that requires long hours, strain and multiple points of failure. This will be a major test for the company under Hyundai, which has sought to further its commercial ambitions.

For DHL, meanwhile, it’s an opportunity to automate some logistics roles during a time when blue collar jobs have proven difficult to keep staffed. It’s also a chance to more fully embrace automation as it competes with the likes of Amazon, which has begun steadily encroaching on the package delivery space.

Source: Tech

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Polly snags $37M in Menlo-led Series B to automate workflows for mortgage lenders

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Polly, a SaaS technology startup aiming to “transform” the mortgage capital markets, announced today that it has raised $37 million in a Series B funding round led by Menlo Ventures.

New backers Movement Mortgage, First American Financial and FinVC joined existing investors 8VC, Khosla Ventures and Fifth Wall in participating in the round. The latest financing brings the San Francisco-based startup’s total funding raised to $50 million.

Adam Carmel, founder and CEO of Polly, says the company has increased its customer count by nearly 3x over the past year, including “several of the country’s top 100 lenders.”

He founded the company in 2019 under the premise that while many industries have undergone digital transformation initiatives, the mortgage industry is still largely reliant on “the same expensive and cumbersome processes and tasks that have been in use for decades,” Carmel said. 

Polly’s mission is to fundamentally change the way lenders and loan buyers operate by giving them the ability to make data-driven decisions. The company’s software is “uniquely configured to automate customer workflows and improve execution — from rate lock to loan sale and delivery,” Carmel said.

Carmel previously founded Ethos Lending (which sold to Fenway Summers in 2014) and it was that experience that helped him conclude there were serious gaps in the market for automating workflows for lenders.

The need certainly seems to be there. For example, one company in the space is Optimal Blue, which was purchased by Black Knight for $1.8 billion in 2020. 

Carmel believes Polly stands out from others in the industry in that it is helping create a fourth category in the mortgage sector — capital markets.

“I viewed it as a sizable opportunity to build a vertically integrated software platform that would automate workflows for a mortgage company,” Carmel told TechCrunch. “My view is that over time consumers are going to expect not only a digital experience but also a mortgage product, loan and associated pricing that are customized and tailored for specific purposes.”

To that end, he added, Polly is laser focused on doing just that so that its customers “can configure individual loans as dynamically as they would like.”

“The goal is that ultimately, they are able to deliver a lower mortgage price to their consumers or to their customers while increasing their own profitability,” Carmel said. “We want to help these lenders move away from spreadsheets and telephony and email as a transaction medium, and instead do everything in the cloud. Over time, we want to be able to transition into a system of record for the customers themselves.”

Polly, he said, is able to help configure loans on a multi-dimensional basis.

The startup has increased its customer count by nearly “3x” over the past year and signed several of the country’s top 100 lenders. While it invested mostly on its product in 2021, it plans to put some of its new capital toward its go to market strategy while continuing to be “heads down focused on product.” That includes expanding its product and engineering teams and investing in AI and machine learning capabilities. 

“The next year or two is going to be a really exciting time for us,” Carmel said. “We see this as a compelling window and opportunity to really help transform the market.”

Menlo Ventures partner Tyler Sosin, who is joining Polly’s board of directors as part of the financing, believes the startup is “taking on a sector held back by sclerotic incumbents with dated, disconnected and dragging solutions” and “driving transformation and winning customers at an impressive rate.”

He said Menlo was interested in leading the company’s Series A round but “was a little bit too slow.” Impressed with Polly’s traction even at that point, the firm still participated in that financing with a smaller check and stayed close to the company.

We’ve gotten to know Adam and seen how the customers and the product and the team had evolved, so we leaned into the lead this round,” Sosin told TechCrunch.

Source: Tech

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Tinder updates its approach to handling reports of serious abuse and harassment

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As a result of its ongoing partnership with nonprofit and anti-sexual assault organization RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), Tinder today announced a handful of product improvements as well as training for internal teams at the dating app maker designed to better support survivors of abuse and harassment. Soon, Tinder also says its members will have access to background checks on their matches through Garbo, a nonprofit the dating app maker invested in last spring.

One key aspect of the partnership with RAINN involved training Tinder’s customer care team. Through the training, staff learned how survivors may report abuse and harassment, and how to spot reports of serious abuse — even if the reports use vague language to describe the events. The training, which is now also a mandatory part of Tinder’s onboarding and training curriculum, additionally provides instructions on how team members should respond to these types of reports when they occur.

Meanwhile, in the Tinder app, survivors will gain access to a more direct way to report someone they’ve unmatched with, even if they’ve waited some time before making their report. And they can now opt whether or not they want to receive follow-up information about actions taken, as some prefer to receive updates and others do not.

The app will also provide alternative support options, as not everyone will feel comfortable making a direct report. Through the Tinder Safety Center, a dedicated Crisis Text Line will be provided as well as the upcoming feature offering access to background checks on matches from Garbo. Tinder invested a seven-figure sum into New York-based Garbo in March 2021, which offers an alternative to traditional background checks that surface a wide variety of personal information — like drug offenses or minor traffic violations. Garbo instead focuses on whether or not someone’s background indicates a history of violence. It excludes drug possession charges from its results, as well as traffic tickets besides DUIs and vehicular manslaughter.

The Tinder Safety Center is now also accessible from anywhere in the app, reducing the number of taps it takes for a user to locate the resource.

“Our members are trusting us with an incredibly sensitive and vulnerable part of their lives, and we believe we have a responsibility to support them through every part of this journey, including when they have bad experiences on and off the app,” said Tracey Breeden, VP of Safety and Social Advocacy for Tinder and Match Group, in a statement about the changes. “Working with RAINN has allowed us to take a trauma-informed approach to member support for those impacted by harassment and assault,” she added.

Breeden, who held a similar position at Uber, joined Tinder in September 2020 as Match Group’s first-ever head of safety and social advocacy, tasked with overseeing the company’s safety policies across its apps, including Tinder, Hinge, Match, OkCupid, and Plenty of Fish.

Tinder and other dating apps have put a higher focus on member safety features after a 2019 report revealed how dating apps run by Tinder parent Match Group allowed known sexual predators to use its apps, due to the lack of background check features. Other reports have highlighted the very real safety concerns that accompany the dating app market, particularly those impacting young women — a key dating app demographic.

In early 2020, Tinder invested in Noonlight to help it power new safety features inside Tinder and other Match-owned dating apps, ahead of its investment in Garbo.

But Tinder’s changes aren’t only about protecting dating app users — they’re about protecting Tinder’s business, as well.

Tinder’s top U.S. competitor, Bumble has marketed itself as being more women-friendly, launching a number of features designed to keep users safe from bad actors, like one that prevents abusers from using the “unmatch” option to hide from victims, for example. Tinder has followed suit, launching new safety features of its own.

The company has also felt the pressure to get ahead of coming regulations impacting tech companies, like those operating social media apps and dating services. Tinder, which dominates the dating app market, today plays in social networking as well, with additions like quick chat features, an interactive video series, and other additions to its new Explore hub in the app.

“By adopting more trauma-informed support practices, Tinder will be better positioned to support members who may have experienced harm and take faster, more transparent action on bad actors,” noted Clara Kim, Vice President of Consulting Services at RAINN, in a statement.

Source: Tech

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