Honda’s Engineering Failures and the Organizational Side of Digital Transformation

A year ago, I wrote about El Al’s and American Airlines’ epic failures in rules-based systems and digital transformation. My point then was that digital transformation must involve deep thinking about the total customer experience, not just a narrow focus on systems and code. I am back on this beat to discuss a comparable set of failures on the part of Honda, maker of my 2022 Civic.

I am generally forgiving of lapses in service from major corporations. I’ve worked in large enterprises, so I empathize with the challenges of getting a lot of big moving parts to align. A mistake is a mistake. Forgive and move on. However, with Honda, the failures in product design and accompanying support are so pervasive that it reveals an underlying organizational rot—a rot that shows how difficult it can be to execute a digital product strategy.

Having attended business school in the early 1990s, I was raised to believe that Honda and its fellow Japanese manufacturers were working at a higher level of design and product marketing than their American counterparts. They could do no wrong, as they swept up market share with superior products at competitive prices. Every aspect of a car’s design was carefully thought through and executed with consumer-facing perfection.

How the mighty have fallen. My first brush with the peculiarities of a too-digital car occurred when I had to have my Honda towed. (I’d lost my key fob, a digital convenience that turned into a hassle when it disappeared.) There was no mechanical parking brake release in this electronics-heavy car. At least, none that I or the tow truck driver could find. Without the key fob, the car was anchored to the street. The tow truck had to drag the car up onto its bed to take it to the dealership, a time-consuming chore that could have damaged the car.

Then, my battery ran down when it was -7 degrees outside (-20 with wind chill). The electronic key fob did not work because there was no power. The hole for the backup key was not visible, so as my fingers froze, I finally realized the keyhole was hidden under the door handle. Whoever thought that up deserves a medal for absurdly bad design. It required three hands to manage, and even then, it took a good ten minutes to get the key to work. I risked frostbite to open my car door.

Then, because I’m not a car person, and it was pitch black outside, I could not find the hood release. I looked in the manual, but there was no reference in the index for how to release the hood. I finally found a YouTube video that explained it.

More recently, my son managed to lock himself out of the car while the engine was still running. For reasons that I cannot fathom, this switches off the car locks. We stood there watching the car run, unable to open the doors or the trunk. There is probably a security reason for this vehicular software design decision, but I cannot imagine what it is.

No problem. That’s what Honda Roadside Assistance is for, right? I called them and explained what was going on. I was sure they would have some simple fix, like click your heels together and say you want to be back in Kansas and the car will open. But no, the guy on the line had never heard of this problem. I suppose I was the first person in the history of this company to ever lock himself out of his car. He had nothing to offer other than sending a tow truck to give me a jump start. Sir, I said, my car is already running. I don’t need a jump start. He arranged for me to be towed to the dealership. I wasn’t sure what that would accomplish, but that was all he had on his rules-based system and its customer service scripts.

I called the dealership and asked if they could help me. They said they didn’t give mechanical advice over the phone. You’re welcome. They’d apparently never heard of this issue, either. Honda for the win, again.

A few minutes later, the car switched itself off and the doors unlocked. Why hadn’t the roadside assistance operator or dealership known about this? That would have required someone, or more likely some team of people, actually thinking through what happens when you drive a Honda civic in the real world. It would have required some coordination between the design team, the people who write the manuals and those who support the car once it’s been sold. None of that was happening.

Digital product transformation is a complex challenge in both technological and organizational terms. Cars now contain millions of lines of code. They are designed and manufactured through completely digital processes. The results can be impressive, but so can the unintended problems.

Each digital feature, like an electronic parking brake or an automated lock down if the motor is running, should be accompanied by some deep thinking about what can go wrong when these features cause unexpected difficulties. If the Honda of yore was still functioning, someone would have anticipated trouble and either changed the design or, at a minimum, made sure that roadside assistance had the information it needed to help customers solve the problem. Maybe it’s time for some analog transformation at Honda.


Photo by Liviu Gorincioi: