Toyota and the F16 in Your Driveway – continued

The latest on the Toyota “unintended acceleration” government information leaks talks about how data from the car’s computers have indicated that most instances were caused by drivers simply nailing the accelerators and missing the brakes.  Shades of 1979 when Audi just about lost the US market because drivers were claiming that their Audis were zooming off on their own and killing and maiming.

To be true, the data collected is fragmentary, as often key data is lost when the accident causes a power disconnection or the car is towed to a storage facility and the battery goes dead before any data can be collected.  Such is life in these days of ever present computer technology.

Maybe the solution is to do away with automatic transmissions in cars and force people to use a clutch again.  What a draconian thought you say?  Dictate what technology is in our cars for us? 

Hey, wake up.  Having our government dictate what technology is to be placed in cars is nothing new.  From rear view mirrors, to lighting standards, to “air bags” (SRS technology), crash standards, ABS, TPMS, and on and on.  If that bothers you, then you better just get over it because more is coming.  A lot more.

Think you are in direct control of your car?  Think again.  Get ready to have even less direct control – for your own safety.

In the 1980’s computers were introduced into some basic control systems of a few cars.  By the mid-1990’s OBD (on board diagnostics – electronic engine and emissions control) was becoming a necessity.  By 1998 OBD II was mandatory and standards were established that all manufacturers had to comply with.  Computers were going to rat out on us if our emissions gear experienced a failure.   Welcome the “check engine light” that many covered with a piece of black electrical tape out of desperation when they discovered how expensive it would cost to keep their vehicle emissions compliant.

Now it is 2010 and computers abound in our cars.  Not just one or two, it is often at least 35 and many cars can have 60 to 70 with 150 pounds of wiring connecting them to their sensors.

Government regulations will soon require Electronic Stability Control (ESC) as required equipment on all new cars.  What is ESC?  It is computer controlled programming that takes over the functions of the throttle and brakes from the driver for their own protection.  ESC started being phased in in 2009 and in 2011 95% of new vehicles will have to have ESC.  By 2012 all of them will. 

Carefully watch the advertising of new cars today and you will see these capabilities marketed as new features.  The car companies don’t tell you that they are mandatory; instead they market them as if they are adding a special upgrade for you. 

All this means integration of the powertrain and chassis systems to a degree you have never before imagined.  The engine, transmission, brakes, steering, and suspension will no longer be completely under your control. 

If you have driven a newer Corvette or Mustang, or BMW you have seen Traction Control that can be switched off and on as the driver sees fit.  Enjoy the freedom of choice while you can.

ESC, electronic throttle control (ETC), traction control (TC), and other controls will automatically keep you from spinning your wheels, locking your brakes, or turning too hard.

Electronic power steering (EPS) is the latest portion to be integrated into ESC so you may find that hydraulic power steering will become a charming antique.  The change to an electric motor assist might provide a more positive feel for the driver when the computerized control systems are not taking over control.

The Nissan GTR super car has many electronic handling features that enhance the car’s ability to negotiate a road racing track with speed and agility.  High performance driving instructors that have driven them have been totally impressed with their cornering performance, but find that they are just about useless as a vehicle that teaches drivers how to drive in high performance (track) situations.  It doesn’t allow the driver to screw up as it controls the throttle, brakes, etc. when in high speed handling maneuvers.   So a novice driver never learns the proper application of braking and throttle, instead they can just scream up to a corner – jam on the brakes – turn the wheel – and jam on the accelerator and the car will do the hard work (and thinking) for them.

The Evolution X from Mitsubishi also has applied extraordinary amounts of technology to the chassis controls in the form of what they call Active Suspension with Active Braking, Active Steering, Active Yaw Control, etc.  It make a wonderful drive where you can do amazing things without developing real skills.

All this mandated application of electronic wizardry by our legislative bodies is ostensibly to protect us from ourselves, and in some instances it may do just that, but there is a little voice screaming inside me saying “you’ll be sorry”!

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4 Responses to Toyota and the F16 in Your Driveway – continued

  1. Noel says:

    Another great piece, Jim. And we will be sorry. I believe we’re going to find that the coming crop of “do it all for you” cars are going to be a nightmare. Three things come to mind.

    1> I simply don’t trust technology to be robust enough to last a large percentage of the useful life of a car (say, a bare minimum of 100K–preferably longer). Think of all the technical issues there are with computers, cell phones, iPods/iPads, HDTV televisions, satellite TVs, VoIP phones, software programs, viruses, worms, electrical spikes and surges. That stuff is all mostly indoors. Now put even more advanced technology into cars that are exposed to rain, snow, heat, cold, road salt, road debris, and random impacts of the violent kind. Call me skeptical on how well the electrons keep jumping through hoops.

    2> Repair and maintenance costs are going to skyrocket and technicians are going to be in shorter supply because the knowledge and skills needed to diagnose the electronic systems will surpass the number of techs able to climb that learning curve. Maybe there’ll be a ready supply of ex-military avionics and weapons techs wanting to go into auto repair; or guys who might otherwise repair the highly complex, million-dollar printers from Xerox and HP will go work on cars. Even if techs are in good supply, they will often be reduced to diagnosing which of a dozen solid state electronic modules needs to be replaced–to the tune of a nice four-figure sum. And only at a dealer with the necessary computers/software to diagnose the problem.

    3> Put these two together and I’m betting that a lot of otherwise good cars will hit the used car lots early because the costs to replace a few $1,000 computer modules will exceed the value of the car–which would already be depressed because it needs things like the ABS/TCS/ESP/ECU/TPS/XYZ replaced, along with the back-up camera, blind-spot warning system, 7-position climate control, rain-sensing wipers, 3D DVD players, GPS, Bluetooth, OnStar, heated cup holders, and all the other junk, 80% of which serves no practical purpose.

    This makes me want to hang onto my aging Saabs even longer. They work, they go fast, and I can fix them. My wife’s 2003 Saab wagon has TCS and ESP (same system as in Mercedes). ABS is worthwhile, but the rest of it is window dressing and a waste of money. Even in a blizzard and icy roads, TCS and ESP are of marginal value unless one is driving too fast for conditions to begin with or doesn’t know how to drive in bad weather. Whether this junk is government mandated or not, 80% of it is technology for its own sake and the answer to a question nobody asked.

    Then, as Jim notes, there’s the overall decline in driving skills all this junk will perpetuate. I’ll just keep buying pre-2005 cars.

  2. Mark says:

    The more we get dependent on computers the harder it’ll be to function without them. Technology should be there to help (and for a real purpose), not take over.

  3. markitude says:

    Jim,

    Great post – you can hear me gnashing my teeth already.

    Noel, I think you are right – the repair costs may radically change the way warranties work. If you take 4 years to pay off a car, and once out of warranty, some of this wizardry fails, how long does it make sense to keep the car? High end cars? Perhaps they will hold their value longer and people won’t be ready to hop back in line and plunk down another $60K or $70, but the $20K cars? Will be junking stuff after less than 10 years? Today, if some of the wizardry fails, the car keeps on running without some of these safety features – I drove my vette for several months with the ABS/ESC offline due to a bad relay. $600-$800 at the dealership or $150 to have it rebuilt by a 3rd party, one that I only found through the help of google and some forums. Now what if they car won’t drive at all if some of these systems are offline? Could we imagine government mandates to that effect? Perhaps in time. But then, I suspect that as in my case, this may open the door to a whole new wave of small tech savvy businesses that can do board level repair work more economically than the dealer can replace the whole assembly. Interesting to think about – it’s all just change.

  4. Noel says:

    Mark,
    I think you’re right on the opportunity for tech savvy folks to do board level repair. I thought of the very same thing, but didn’t put it in the first note.

    The trick will be how quickly the automakers open up the code and the info on how a given module works. Sure, some of it can be reverse engineered, but the real info will make a big difference.

    Re-mapping or flashing ECUs, or swapping chips, is one thing, but a dozen or so little CPUs in a car is a tad more challenging. But there is probably opportunity! Also the potential for 3rd party parts, which can have it’s own problems.

    Then there’s simpler stuff. On Saabs there are a couple of relays or boards where the solder simply develops cracks over time. Easy enough to reflow if you’re handy with a soldering iron, but still opportunity.

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