It’s been written before on these pages how electronically dependant our vehicles have evolved into being. It started out simply enough with the electric starter replacing the dangers of the hand crank. It was not just a good idea, it was a great idea, even if it did cut down on fractured arms.
Not long after came electric lights and horns. Things slowed down for a bit and then we had electric windows and convertible tops, electric seats and eight track players to supplement radios.
When it became clear that carburetors could no longer handle the demands of the EPA to keep emissions in check the real changes stated taking place and – like the proverbial snowball rolling down a hill – the computerization of our mode of transportation has kept up with the pace of Moore’s Law.
Fuel injection in the sixties and seventies had been mechanical affairs. Chevrolet equipped some Corvettes with an early version and CanAm racers often used Hilborn fuel injection that still needed to be tuned prior to every race to accommodate differences in humidity, temperatures, and air density. Certainly mechanical fuel injection was not practical for daily driving.
As we ended the seventies and entered the 1980’s computer technology was growing by leaps and bounds. Just in time for the automotive industry, computers became compact enough to be used to control fuel injection systems and soon OBD was born. On Board Diagnostics (OBD) started primarily as a way for car manufacturers to diagnose problems with engine control modules (ECM) and related sensory devices particularly during the manufacturing process. General motors developed an assembly line diagnostic link (ALDL) for that purpose, but it soon became clear that this would be a necessity beyond the assembly line.
The malfunction indicator light (MIL) soon became the check engine light (CEL) and with California regulation pointing the way OBD started to become a standard. Prior to this not even the diagnostic port plug configuration was standard between vehicle brands. Emissions continued to be a motivating factor in the standardization and in 1996 all cars sold n the United States were required to comply with OBD-II.
In reality it took a couple of years for all vehicles to comply with the OBD-II standard. Many vehicles manufactured and sold in 1996 and 1997 had problems when the OBD systems were used as emissions check in many states’ vehicle inspection programs. Soon OBD-II was a standard that was universal and CEL’s were blinking away as cars aged out.
This fulfilled the EPA’s dream of vehicles tattling on themselves when they fell out of emissions compliance and created a minor roadblock to hot rodders and tuners.
Soon more and more electronics invaded the unibodies of car sold in the US. Switches no longer acted directly upon devices and instead the signals were run through a multitude of processors imbedded throughout new vehicles. Electric windows did not go up or down unless the request went through a computer. Air conditioning and heating was no longer a matter of pushing a lever and throwing a switch that mechanically routed air of differing temperatures – climate control went through its own set of processors and determined how the mix was going to be altered according to feedback from sensors and the position of the desires inputted by the passenger and driver. Heated seats, GPS, satellite radio, SRS (air bags), and much, much more meant that sophisticated networks were required for all the digital traffic coursing through our cars. In 2008 the CAN (Controller Area Network bus) is standardized through ISO 15765-4.
What started out as a single processor to control fuel injection has become multiplied to be fifty or sixty (depending upon the vehicle) that continually interact with sensors and each other to perform the basic function that a primitive Ford Model-T once fulfilled.
No longer will the accelerator pedal physically move anything more than an electronic potentiometer. Soon our steering wheel will lack a direct connection and control will be in the hands of a computer program as stability control becomes mandatory in 2012.
Soon OBD-II will be old technology and OBD-III will take its place. The form and function of a new version of OBD could radically change not only how our vehicles look after and comply with the requirements of EPA but also remove several more layers of personal privacy.
Wireless technology abounds in our lives with phones and laptops and tablets providing us links to each other everywhere we go. Implementing that technology into OBD will allow the EPA and state vehicle inspection agencies to know how our vehicles are operating in terms of compliance with emissions regulations. That will obviate the need for annual inspections because such vehicles will be constantly monitoring compliance and a CEL will no longer simply annoy the driver. A vehicle with emissions difficulties will announce to the driver and the authorities that it is failing. No longer will a piece of black tape be the solution to a CEL.
But it won’t stop there. Data recorders will be the norm. Solid state storage has become so cheap that cars will have the equivalent of black boxes that will record all sensory input including our location and speed. And there is no need to wait until an accident to gather the data. Instead of red light and speed cameras our vehicles will simply keep track of where we are and what the legal speed limit is and report any misbehavior to the same private companies that today run the red light cameras. Our checking accounts will be debited and the insurance companies will add points to increase our premiums.
Why bother with license plates at all? Our cars can transmit our vehicle’s identity just like all aircraft that the FAA controls do. Why worry about high speed chases when the police can wirelessly bring the offending vehicle to a safe stop?
It will be a boon to private detectives and divorce attorneys. Hackers will have a new challenge in disabling the tracking facility and overruling the factory tuning.
Speed limit signs will become quaint as speed limits can be changed on the fly depending upon changes in traffic conditions and municipalities financial needs. Display on the vehicle dashboard will inform the driver of the current speed limit and how much has been deducted from his account.
As you can see technology is the proverbial two-edged sword. It can help and it can harm.
Perhaps people will no longer view vehicles as their personal escape pod. Licensed motor vehicles will become such a tattle tale environment that they will start walking more and using bicycles to get around. OBD-III could change the world.