In the introduction to a January 2009 BusinessWeek excerpt from his book “What Would Google Do?,” author Jeff Jarvis extolled the idea that the Detroit automakers should start releasing cars in “beta” form, much the way the Silicon Valley tech giant had been doing with its software products. Despite the obvious dangers of open public beta testing in the car business, it seems that a number of automakers, including Tesla, Fisker, BMW, Ford, General Motors, have been doing exactly that to varying degrees over the past several years.
The history of beta testing
The concept of structured alpha and beta testing of software has its origins with IBM. Back in the 1950s, the computing pioneer defined alpha testing as the internal product verification before a public announcement. Beta testing was the verification of the product by users before it got released to production.
Until Google went all-in on publicly releasing software that was labeled as beta in the past decade, beta releases were mostly restricted to select groups of testers who committed to providing regular feedback about problems in the product. Google’s GMail was the stereotypical example of an open beta, retaining that status for more than five years from its initial release in April 2004 until July 2009.
In the automotive realm, with a few notable exceptions, manufacturers have generally kept their equivalent of beta testing strictly in-house, using engineers and test drivers to evaluate new vehicles and systems. Even the final stage of evaluation before vehicles go on sale to the general public has been restricted to employees. For example, at General Motors, anywhere from several dozen to several hundred production-representative examples are distributed to managers and other employees in the final months before the on-sale date in what is known as the captured test fleet.
Public beta testing in the auto industry
Perhaps the best-known early example of a public beta test in the car industry was the Chrysler Turbine car program. Between 1963 and 1965, Chrysler built 55 turbine-powered coupes and loaned them to more than 200 drivers around the United States for three months at a time to gather real-world data and driving impressions.
When automakers make it clear that they are running a test program like Project Driveway or BMW’s EV evaluations, customers can go in with their eyes open and know that they might experience some problems. Even if customers pay for the privilege of participating, they probably won’t mind, and the engineers can learn a lot.
On the other hand, when paying tens of thousands of dollars for a regular production vehicle, mass-market customers expect it to work from the start, whether they are buying from startups like Tesla and Fisker or century-old stalwarts like Ford, GM, or BMW. Every one of these companies regularly market their new technologies as features that will make customers’ lives better, but sometimes they don’t.
Perhaps the solution is for auto manufacturers to develop ways to do more real-world beta testing of new technologies so they can find out what doesn’t work before they commit to production, making sure everyone involved knows exactly what to expect.
The source for this blog is from an article in Motor Trend. If you wish to read the full article go to this link:
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