Electronically Challenged Cars

Cars are more reliable than ever - except when they aren't.

Anyone who reads old books or watches old movies will quickly get the idea that modern cars are enormously more reliable than cars of the past.  A tire blowout, running out of fuel, or some other breakdown was a standard trope in stories of the 1950s or before; today, how often does this happen to you?  Most people go years between times when they need to call for a tow even from home and much longer between incidents where they're left stranded on the side of the road by a failure.

Yet based on my admittedly unscientific sample, it appears that the mechanical parts of automobiles have become far more reliable than the electronic doodads that are proliferating, particularly on higher-end vehicles.  I have a friend who bought a low-end Ford van which has needed frequent service due to abuse of the body by other drivers and the occasional vandal.  But the only issue that could even slightly be blamed on the vehicle itself is a windshield wiper motor that burned out because someone put on the wrong size blades - they were so long that the motor couldn't move them and fried trying.  Other than that, the mechanical parts of the car have a perfect record over quite a few years.

The More Electronics, The More Gremlins

I have other friends who own much more expensive cars.  In these cases, the electronics seem to give far more trouble then the mechanical parts such as the motor, axle, or transmission gearing.

One friend with a fancy Jaguar found one day that his car had to be towed because he could not put it into gear.  This was not a fault in the transmission itself; the electronic shift control had failed.  Although this was the only time he was unable to drive the car to the shop, he's had endless trouble with the tire pressure sensors and with trying to get the Bluetooth to talk properly to his smart phone - everything more or less works, but the notification of who is calling does not appear on the car's video screen as the instruction manual says that it should.  The car is generally driveable, but most of the time there's something "not quite right" that relates to a computer or electronic glitch of some kind.

From what I can tell, electronic gremlins are a long-standing automotive problem.  Another friend owned a Mercedes convertible 30 years ago.  He had far more trouble with it I had with my significantly cheaper Subaru which had far fewer electronics.  Neither of us had trouble with the engine, transmission, or the rest of the power train that's required to actually get you around - the issues were all in the electronic extras.

User-Hostile Electronics

Even when the electronics is not, strictly speaking, at fault, it doesn't always operate in a customer-friendly manner.  I got out of a Pontiac van to scrape some ice off the windshield.  The electronic status panel said that the key was in the ignition - which it was, on purpose, so I wouldn't lose it in the snow - so I unlocked the door to let myself out.

When I tried to get back in, the car had automatically locked the door, leaving me out in the cold with no key.  Fortunately, my cell phone wasn't locked in the car and I was close enough to home that a relative could bring me the spare key, but I was nearly as annoyed at the car as if something expensive had failed.

Later on, the car started running the battery down at odd intervals. The battery itself tested fine.  After a fair amount of troubleshooting, the shop figured out that a very cheap limit switch was intermittently telling the computer that the door was open and the friendly computer turned on the cabin lights.

The car has circuitry so that if the lights stay on long enough, the computer turns them off to protect the battery.  In this case, the switch turned on for a bit then turned off, and then turned on again. It was never on long enough to trigger the battery protection circuit, so this eventually ran the battery down.

The shop found that the switch, itself worth a few cents, was built into a custom electronic component which had a replacement price of $300.  Instead of paying this exorbitant charge, I had them tweak the switch so that it never told the computer that the door was open.  This protects the battery but the car always thinks I'm still sitting in the driver's seat after turning off the ignition.

None of this directly affects the car's physical ability to get from here to there, but has an effect on user happiness almost as great as if it did.

Deadly Electronics

We've been hearing that the new electronic remote-access keys, which nearly all new cars have, come with a whole new set of problems: thieves have built recorders that pick up the key fob's signal through the wall from where it's hung near the door.  They play the recording and the car lets them in.

What's worse, people have been dying when they leave the engine running in their garage when they get out of the car without pushing the "Off" button.  If the garage is attached to the house, the house eventually fills with carbon monoxide and they die.  The old style of key was safer: to get the key out of the ignition, you had to turn the car off and also put it in park so it couldn't move.  Your house key was on the same keychain, so you'd be unable to get in the house without both shutting down and immobilizing the car.

You might think an alert person would at least hear the motor running, but that's not so: many modern cars automatically shut down the motor when the car is stopped (as at a red light or in your garage) to save fuel.  But they're still "running," so the motor will automatically start up again as needed to recharge the battery, which is still powering all the electronics.  Cars which don't do that have been getting quieter and quieter, and older people who're the most used to old-fashioned keys don't hear all that well anyway.

These fripperies add significantly to the cost.  In the old days, you could make a new copy of your car key at any hardware store for a buck or two.  Some luddite curmudgeons resent having to pay $350 to replace a lost car key all on account of some fancy chip that doesn't stop thieves anyway.

We bring up electronics because we've been discussing modern automotive trends, specifically, self-driving battery-powered cars such as the Tesla.  The Tesla was designed from the axles up to be completely electronic.  This makes it easier to add self-driving features as part of an integrated design as opposed to tacking various electronic bits on later.

You might think that being electronic from the get-go would make Teslas particularly vulnerable to failures of this sort, but not necessarily.  Mr. Musk's sales volumes are low enough that he can't afford to design many custom, automobile-only electronic components.  He has to make do with high-volume consumer electronics for the touch panels and control electronics.

This gives his electronics inherently better reliability than custom automobile electronics.  Although cars are sold in decent volume, it's nowhere near the production volume of consumer electronics which leads to higher reliability due to increased investment in automatic test equipment.  Also, in our modern world, there are far more "hackers" field-testing consumer electronics than there are gearheads fiddling around with their cars.

Reliability of electronics is going to be of far more importance than hitherto as we move toward self-driving cars.  My friend's Jaguar wouldn't go into gear when the transmission controller failed.  This was annoying but not life-threatening because the failure mode was to immobilize the vehicle, not to misdirect it.  What would happen if the driving computer failed and steered him into a guardrail at 70 MPH while shutting off the air bags as in the GM ignition switch fiasco?

Having a human monitor a mostly self-driving car is futile.  The video of the Uber car which toasted a pedestrian shows the driver paying no attention whatsoever to what the car was doing at the moment of impact.  To be fair to the driver, it's not clear from the video that any other human would have seen the woman or her bicycle soon enough to avoid contact under those lighting conditions even if the driver had been totally alert.

Recalling centuries of trouble military organizations have had trying to keep sentries awake in even life-threatening situations, does anyone think any human can stay eternally alert while being chauffeured about with nothing to do?  The first Tesla autopilot-related crash occurred while the driver was watching a video instead of paying attention.

In its 537-word statement on the incident, the electric vehicle company repeatedly went out of its way to shift blame for the accident. The first paragraph notes that this was Tesla's first known autopilot death in some 130 million miles driven by its customers. "Among all vehicles in the US, there is a fatality every 94 million miles," the company then notes.

Mathematically, computers are already more reliable than people, so automated cars can be expected to save lives even at their current stage of development.  Compelling statistics, however, will be no comfort to the unfortunate souls who realize that their car computer has failed, in time to see and fear impending doom but unable to do anything about it because the failed computer won't let them.

The question remains: how much more reliable and how much more user-friendly will individual electronic components need to be to support trustworthy enough self-driving capabilities that ordinary people will accept them?  At the very least, a big red emergency STOP button on the dashboard that physically cuts off all power and applies physical emergency brake, should be an absolute requirement - at least until the first curious 3-year-old slams the pretty red button at speed.

There are no perfect solutions.

Will Offensicht is a staff writer for Scragged.com and an internationally published author by a different name.  Read other Scragged.com articles by Will Offensicht or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments

Thanks for this great contribution.

About to buy an RV and go for a couple of years' drive and I believe your article is become keystone to the archway that leads me toward "how and what to buy?"

Used, not new and older and simpler. And the money saved could (if I would ever need it) buy a score-or-so thousands of gallons of diesel.

June 3, 2018 10:11 PM

One good thing about the electronic cars is that they are easier to service and test. If you live in a state that does emissions testing, you pull up and they stick some plug under your dash and in a couple minutes you're on your way. No long lines ( special line for electro cars) and no long wait as they stick/adjust and read/ re-read a tailgate probe. Same with service... stick in the plug and you quickly know if you're in for an oil change or something more ominous . I live in a red state where the DMV is run by an eager-to-please private contractor. May be different in a blue state run by feather bedding gov't unions who don't care.
There certainly is a downside tho. I've had my SUV for 3 years and I still hear beeps and buzzes that are new. Usually telling me something like the visor mirror light is out, or something. Plus the radio is a real mystery. Hit a wrong spot on the touchpad and your station changes from ESPN to the Raunchy Joke Channel. Usually requires some explaining if you're traveling with grand kids.

June 4, 2018 8:48 AM

My dad did not buy a car back in the 70’s with power windows because the more things a car has, the more things that could go bad.

June 4, 2018 8:54 AM

The heavy use of electronics also opens up new failure modes, and frankly new forms of design stupidities.

For example, it was found a few years ago that the flight control system of a modern jumbo jet could be hacked by first hacking into the entertainment system, because they were on the same network. Further, the entertainment system was easy to hack because there is a junction under every seat, giving physical access. Life critical systems should never be combined with trivial stuff like the movie sound system, because any fault on the sound system could impact critical safety systems. But they were because it saved a few bucks by not having to run 2 sets of network cables.

Another example is that Air France 447 crashed because of a stupid design. The autopilot was designed to save fuel by carefully matching engine power and air speed. Air speed was measured by a single pitot tube, a simple instrument that must stick into the airflow outside the plane. Icing is a well know problem for airplanes, yet the pitot tube was not protected against it, and the autopilot did not use any other source of data, although they were available. Finally, the auto pilot was not programed to do any sanity checking on operations. So what happened? The pitot tube iced up, and reported a speed too high, so the autopilot cut engine power. The pitot tube, being iced, did not report a drop in speed, so the auto pilot cut power again. The auto pilot did not notify the pilots, and did not consider that it kept cutting power. Within a few minutes it cut the engine power so much that the airplane stalled, and literally fell out of the sky, striking the ocean with enough force that it broke up and sank. Every one died. Yet even a single simple rule, like "notify the pilot if the auto pilot cuts power but the speed does not decrease", or "notify the pilot if the auto pilot cuts power 3 times in a row" would have allowed the pilot to take command.

If these can happen on aircraft costing 100's of millions, where the designs are reviewed by teams of safety experts, why would anyone expect better on even an expensive car?

June 8, 2018 11:55 PM

The IT industry is all abuzz about the Meltdown and Spectre cpu chip security exploits that affect CPU chips from Intel and to a lesser degree AMD and other vendors. The fix is to update the microcode of the CPU and also to update the BIOS of the affected systems. as well as operating system patches for Windows, MacOS, and Linux. Intel is only producing microcode updates for CPU chips from the last 5 years or so, and some computer vendors are even being less generous with the BIOS updates. I found that a laptop that I had that was made in 2014 had no BIOS update available. Usage of unpatched computers can be potentially hazardous as they may be subject to exploits, you could find your online accounts and credit card info stolen.

Now, what about when this happens with the CPU chips used in self driving cars? For how many years back will the CPU chips be updated? For how many years back will the car manufacturer update the BIOS (Firmware) in the car? For how many years will the car manufacturer update the operating system of the car? Failure to update can literally be a life and death issue. Having your laptop get hijacked is bad enough. Having your self driving car get hijacked can get you killed, kidnapped, or fill-in-the-blank. Will cars that are unsafe due to a lack of updates be refused registration renewal by your county? Will we hear of mysterious accidents occurring with cars that were no longer updated? Will some drivers mysteriously disappear? Given the number of computers that I have had to trash out due to the current Intel fiasco, I would have to have some awfully good answers to these questions before I would ever consider buying a self driving car!

June 24, 2018 3:19 AM
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