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While You Slept, We Broke Your Car

Imagine walking into your office one morning and logging on to your computer, only to discover it would let you do your taxes, but not check your email or browse the web.

I assume you would be unhappy.

It probably wouldn’t make you feel much better if your computer’s manufacturer contacted you to say you should either bring it back to the store that sold it to you or open the case, disconnect a built-in battery and then put everything back together again. Nor would your mood be helped by learning this headache occurred because your computer’s manufacturer remotely updated your software without asking or even notifying you.

This is why most computers allow you to decide whether you want automatic software updates or prefer that the system asks before installing them. Personally, I subscribe to the “If it ain’t broke, for Pete’s sake leave it alone” school of software management. I am not alone. This is why only critical security updates are typically pushed to a machine without at least the opportunity for the user’s assent. Computer owners can opt in or out of everything else.

Owners of late-model Lexus vehicles are not so lucky.

Lexus, like many automakers these days, sends wireless software updates to its vehicles periodically. Usually, drivers won’t even notice. Earlier this month, however, some Lexus owners woke up to discover that while they could still start and drive their cars, a lot of their fancy features like navigation, audio systems and climate control had been disabled by an automatic software update gone wrong. Thus their nearly new luxury cars were left with the functionality of a 1987 Chevrolet Cavalier, a car no Lexus owner wants to drive.

Lexus owners took to social media to express their displeasure and ask for answers. The issue affected drivers nationwide who subscribe to the “Enform” infotainment system available in vehicles from 2014 onward. And while the affected cars were drivable, the constantly rebooting screen – not to mention the silent ride without radio, Bluetooth or even the hum of the air conditioner – doubtless made for an uncomfortable experience.

Not to worry, said Lexus. You can bring your car to the dealer, who will fix everything with a “complimentary system reset.” Apparently no one at Lexus has ever heard of a software patch. Or, more likely, Lexus is learning that it’s easier to break a car’s computer than it is to fix one.

Drivers who didn’t want a trip to the dealer could go under the hood, disconnect the battery for at least five minutes and reconnect it in order to reset the car’s system. A few enterprising drivers did just that before Lexus had gotten around to informing its customers that they should head to the dealership. While not complex, resetting their systems is a task I suspect many Lexus owners do not wish to undertake. That’s why they bought a Lexus in the first place. To make matters worse, some drivers reported that disconnecting the battery provided only a temporary fix.

The incident is especially embarrassing given that Lexus routinely uses its reliability as a major selling point. Consumer Reports ranked Lexus the “most reliable” car brand in its 2015 automotive survey, as did J.D. Power the same year (and the three years prior). While losing navigation and Bluetooth connectivity is not a safety issue, it is bound to annoy drivers who shelled out the extra cash for a premium vehicle.

Of course, the dealers will not mind the extra traffic. They are not in the business of fixing manufacturers’ mistakes for free, even if in this case the drivers are not the ones paying. No doubt they will also find other things Lexus owners can address – for a fee, of course – when the cars are in the shop. My colleague Eric Meermann recently wrote about his encounter with this reality of dealership visits prompted by manufacturer errors.

Lexus is the premium division of Toyota Motors. I drove my 2015 Toyota Sienna, fondly known in the family as “Moby Dick,” to work the morning I read the Lexus story in the Miami Herald. Its Bluetooth system and satellite radio worked just fine that day. So either Toyota figured out that it would be a good idea not to push this software down to my not-quite-a-Lexus minivan, or they just have not gotten around to breaking my car yet. When and if they do, I will not be a happy camper.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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