Commentary

Software Glitch Turning Pricey New Electric Mustangs Into Useless Bricks, Hints at Major Problem with Modern Cars

Combined Shape

Could a few dozen “bricked” Ford electric crossovers be an augury of something more problematic?

On its face, the Mustang Mach-E is another cautionary tale of how some legacy automakers don’t get electric vehicle technology as well as others.

Ford, which hasn’t been one of the major players in the segment thus far, has had a few problems with the long-awaited vehicle. The home charger for the vehicle, for instance, was withdrawn from the market late last month after some of them didn’t work.

So, it was no surprise that a small number of the new vehicles were facing serious problems thanks to a software update.

However, when it “bricks” a car — turns it into something that can’t easily be moved without taking it to the dealership and getting everything fixed — that’s a bit of a problem. And it’s not just for Ford, given it brings up the specter of a potential issue with other electric vehicles — or any seriously computerized form of transportation.

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On April 8, The Verge reported on an issue with the 12-volt lead-acid battery that powers many of the Mach-E’s systems.

Most of the batteries in an electric vehicle are lithium ion, but the Mach-E uses a lead-acid battery — like many other electric vehicles — to power its start-up systems.

The problem is that the Mach-E’s lead-acid battery uses the main lithium-ion batteries to power up its systems, but because of a software glitch, the battery won’t recharge when the lithium-ion battery is plugged in.

Particularly in cold climates, where battery power off lead-acid batteries can be sapped easily, that’s a serious issue. Owners on several threads in the Mach-E forums described having this problem. The thing is, once the car has it, it goes into “deep sleep” — and “bricks” the car, generally making it impossible to start until it’s towed to the dealership.

Do you think that technology poses dangers in cars?

While Ford offers free roadside towing for the Mach-E and you can’t swing a cat without hitting a Ford dealership in most inhabited parts of the North American continent, that still represents a serious issue.

There’s a way to do it yourself, although it’s not a particularly easy way.

“It is possible to jump the 12-volt battery, just as you would jump-start an internal combustion car. But it’s not nearly as straightforward, especially because the battery is located behind the Mustang Mach-E’s front trunk, and the hood’s electronic latch is powered by the low-voltage battery,” The Verge reported.

“To first open the front trunk then, owners have to open a panel in the front bumper that contains two leads, which can be used to jump the front trunk’s electronic hood latch,” it said.

“Then they have to pull back a panel underneath the hood to find the battery — though even at this point, some owners have had trouble accessing the leads on the 12-volt battery and have cut through the vinyl to more easily jump-start the battery.”

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In short, you might be better off getting the electric vehicle to the dealership.

“We are aware that a small number of Mustang Mach-E owners have had their 12V battery reach a low voltage condition,” Ford said in a statement to The Verge.

“We proactively worked with early owners experiencing this issue to identify the root cause and a fix. In the rare instances where this still occurs, customers can now contact their local EV-certified Ford dealer to have the matter resolved.”

The company said an over-the-air fix to the problem would be available later and that only a handful of the 7,000 Mustang Mach-Es produced before Feb. 3 were affected.

How many is that?

The number that The Verge cited was “dozens.” (Ford wouldn’t give a number, but it’s clearly a relatively small one.)

So, what’s the issue here? This is a fairly basic glitch that affects a small number of cars and requires a bit of patching. Voila — you’re driving again.

That is true, but it’s a portent of what’s to come when you deal with increasing layers of technology that vehicles — and not just cars — have built in.

Granted, we’re not going back to the analog days in any kind of vehicle, be it a plane, train or automobile. However, it’s impossible to understate how complex our transportation options are becoming, particularly electric vehicles, which are expected to showcase recondite wow-gee-whizz technology as part of the package.

Consider that the Mustang Mach-E, like Tesla and GM’s EV and high-end offerings, has an autopilot feature that will allow for hands-free driving once users update the software, according to CNET.

Sensitive systems like that are supposed to come with a high level of redundancy to ensure that if there is some kind of glitch or hardware issue, it doesn’t end in disaster.

This works almost all of the time, it’s worth noting. Cars, trains and planes are more reliable than they were 30 years ago.

When it doesn’t work, however, the consequences can be dire.

The most obvious example: the Boeing 737 MAX, which was only recently reintroduced into airline service after two crashes and numerous pilot reports regarding the unreliability of a software package designed to correct a tendency for the nose to pitch up.

According to The Seattle Times, the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in October 2018 and the March 2019 crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 were both attributed to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System.

Not only that: “While developing the fix for MCAS, the [Federal Aviation Administration] discovered a separate problem, which is that a very unlikely glitch in the microprocessor inside the jet’s flight control computer could theoretically create a similar scenario to the two crashes even without MCAS activating,” The Times reported.

We’ve moved beyond the analog world, but we can’t entirely count on vehicles with little to no manual control that’s not filtered through mechanical inputs.

It’s something regulators love to get rid of because it means lighter, more electrified and more autonomous (and therefore greener) forms of transportation. However, we ought to remember we’re plunging head-first into a world where bricked cars could be the least of our worries.

The 737 MAX is the worst-case scenario, but the unfortunate truth is we’re going to see a whole lot more of that kind of thing in the years and decades to come.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Birthplace
Morristown, New Jersey
Education
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture




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