Now that the furor over Toyota gas pedals has died down a bit it is time to think rationally about what Toyota’s troubles really indicate about today’s automobiles. Toyota is not the only car company to have problems with the technology they employ. You can go to the National Highway Safety Administration web site (www.nhtsa.gov) and search on many different makes and models for recalls and Technical Service Bulletins (TSB’s). There are all kinds of problems with today’s automobiles as well as yesterday’s.
Back in the early 1980’s Audi was hit hard with “unintended acceleration” woes. It became highlighted by a report on the television program “60 Minutes”. It nearly killed the brand in the U.S. Reports were of people trying to stop their car’s acceleration while standing on the brakes and in some cases resulting in injury and deaths. Sound familiar?
In the seventies Ford experienced reported problems with their automatic transmissions popping out of Park and into Reverse. Ford quickly solved that problem by having dealerships put warning stickers on the dashboards of cars to warn operators to ensure the lever was fully engaged in Park.
While today Toyota has taken the spotlight and is the “bad car manufacturer’s” poster child we should take time to examine the realities of the technical sophistication of today’s automobiles and the consequences thereof.
There was a time when cars were completely mechanical beasts. There were no electric starters, only hand cranks that would sometimes break your arm. There were no hydraulic brake systems only levers and cables that relied on your leg muscles and pitiful friction material. That was vastly improved by the employment of hydraulics that multiplied the available leg pressure and activated ever more sophisticated methods of braking such as drums to disk. Later sensors were added along with hydraulic pumps to add computer controlled ABS a functional change that would prevent brake lock-ups allowing shorter braking distances and give a panicked driver the ability to continue to steer the vehicle while braking.
Steering wheels were once turned only through the application of sheer muscle power and transmissions were shifted either by foot pedals (as in the Ford Model T) or by selecting a gear by moving a lever and taking the transmission in and out of engagement by the application of a clutch pedal. Automatic transmissions gained great favor in the United States where drivers became less and less interested in the driving experience and more and more interested in their music and telephones.
All of these “improvements” slowly ate away at the direct control the driver was required to involve himself with. Today’s cars have at least 35 microprocessors and many more sensors to provide data to the on-board computers. Cars have had to create their own networks within the car’s chassis so that signals of information are passed to and fro between the various systems. Some of the most sophisticated cars have upwards of seventy processors and have hundreds of pounds of wiring to facilitate communications between processors, sensors, and systems.
In some cars there is no throttle cable connecting the accelerator to the throttle body’s butterfly. A computer senses the input of the driver’s foot on the pedal and determines what is best in terms of throttle response. In most cases it is a response that exactly matches what a cable would do, but in other cases the computer takes over and determines what is best for the driver. This could be because the speed sensors on the wheels and drive train have indicated slippage and loss of traction and so even though the driver’s foot has mashed the accelerator pedal to the floor, the computer will not let the engine rev the drive train. This is all controlled by computer programming that the car companies have spent millions of hours and dollars on.
In some cars such as the late model Honda S2000 the steering is no longer directly connected to the driver’s wheel. Steering input is sensed and a computer program determines how the steering should react based on sensory input from other areas of the drive train.
In a Toyota Prius computer control can get even more intrusive albeit for the benefit of especially high fuel mileage. In particular, braking is used to generate power that would ordinarily be wasted. In doing so the Prius uses a computer to ensure that electrical power is generated during braking and stored while it also has to distinguish between emergency braking needs (that would kick in ABS) and “normal” braking where there is an opportunity to recover the energy from the act. This kinetic energy recovery system must also shut off and transition (hopefully smoothly) to standard braking in normal use. All these actions are controlled by computers and their programming.
Which brings up the concern of, just what can happen or not happen in terms of malfunctions in these complex systems, we are dealing with software after all. Would you trust your car to a Windows-based operating system?
Hardware will wear out and break. Software is written broken and the errors have only to be discovered. No testing of software is a complete test and is often hampered by the engineers’ natural prejudices.
Now to the F-16 in your driveway. Back in the late 1970’s General Dynamics developed a low cost fighter for the US Air Force with enhanced capabilities. It turned into the F-16. Its predecessor, the F15, was an incredibly powerful, yet expensive platform. By simplifying the airframe and integrating the latest in computer technology the F-16 was able to provide exceptional performance at relatively low cost. One of its innovations was that the “stick”, or flying control, did not move. It was not directly connected to any mechanical or hydraulic actuators to move the flight surfaces. It was a “fly-by-wire” system that simply read the pressure that the pilot put on the stick and translated it into action. The computer system also would not let the pilot do the “wrong” thing, such as stall the airplane. Is any of this starting to sound familiar?
Newer cars are now very computer controlled. Many to the level that the steering wheels and accelerator pedals are not mechanically connected to the systems they operate. Automotive networks, sensors, and computer processors, along with increasingly sophisticated software controls how the vehicle behaves. In 2008 Mitsubishi introduced its Evolution X in the MR version with an automated manual transmission as well as active yaw control, active center differential, active steering, and active braking. Professional race drivers were impressed with the computer controlled handling that was usually reserved for an expensive super car like the Nissan GTR.
These fully integrated, computer controlled, automotive systems bring cars to the level of the most modern aircraft flying today. It also brings with it a situation most, if not all, drivers would like to ignore.
How safe would you feel if your 777 pilots just fired up the aircraft’s engines and took off? Do you realize how much time is spent in pre-flight check lists? How much time is spent on regular maintenance and software upgrades and fixes?
Your car is not just approaching the level of sophistication of a 777, its there. How likely are you to spend 15-20 minutes checking out all systems prior to driving off – every time? How likely are you to do all the maintenance and updates required to keep the modern automobile safe?
Technology and computer technology has taken enormous strides since the F-16 originally appeared but as these systems are put into place we, as the driver, are in less and less direct control with a huge responsibility to ensure our vehicles are up-to-date and maintained and bearing all the cost that goes with it.