Electronic Failures in Modern Cars
by Merkel Weiss 2/15/12
On January 18, 2012, the National Academy of Sciences panel which was convened to examine the unintended acceleration failures attributed certain models of Toyota cars gave their final report. In their closing statement they said a number of things which intrigued me, so I thought that I’d just write a few of them down to memorialize them and comment as well. You may recall that Toyota laid responsibility for the events on a sticky gas pedal or floor mat interference with the gas pedal assembly. This assertion has been neither proved nor disproved at this point, but it seems to be clear from the lack of fresh reports of runaway Toyotas that the problem has most likely been addressed and corrected. This was, however not before Toyota recalled over 8 million Toyota and Lexus vehicles in an attempt to head off the problem.
The NAofS panel convened originally to try and discern whether or not electronic interference of some sort may have played a role in the problem, and to that end they were unable to find a connection between the any type of electromagnetic interference (EMF) and the execution of the cruise control algorithm, which we all have assumed had to be the cause of the unintended acceleration. Other electronic flaws were not examined as far as I can tell.
The panel said that “software and other electronic failures may not leave traces that investigators are equipped to find, so that the National Traffic Safety Administration must become more familiar with and engaged in setting automotive electronics standards”. Now this all makes perfect sense to me - if we can’t find the cause of the defect, set more standards and that’ll fix her right up for you. What more can we expect from bureaucrats charged with actually fixing a problem? So what is the nature of the problem anyway? I think that there are probably several issues here that bear some closer scrutiny.
First, the actual failure mode onboard the Toyota bears some additional examination. The conventional wisdom said that it was the cruise control circuit that executed may itself be a bit of a stretch. Toyota has already owned up to a defective throttle pedal assembly, which as the primary mechanical link in the throttle progression process may well be the basic problem. I understand through unnamed sources that the local fabricator of these pedal assemblies was given some closer defect analysis by Toyota and found to be manufacturing primarily defective parts. This was immediately remedied but too late for those who have been injured or killed by the defect.
The very nature of an electronic defect is an enigma. The NAofS panel boldly announced that “It’s impossible to prove a complete negative, but all the data available to us indicated that there was no electronic or software problem” that may have caused the problem. The committee discussed the possibility that some “untraceable faults” were present as an explanation for the unintended acceleration.
So to anyone of us who has ever tried to do electrical work on a car, I say imagine that! The National Academy of Sciences is now telling us that some electronic faults may not leave a trace for the investigator to follow to the source of the problem. To this revelation, I can only say DUH, and with that a hearty congratulations to our NAofS panel for stating the obvious with little form but undoubtedly great expense. That electronic flaws may not leave a trace is not exactly new information for automotive types. We’ve known this since the first time we took a continuity meter to a wiring harness. We may see the eventual burned result of a failure mode, but rarely the origin.
The electronic origin of the Toyota unintended acceleration failures may or may not exist according to the NAofS panel’s final report. Someday it may present itself or not, but neither means that it does not exist, or that it does exist in the first place. This doesn’t tend to make me feel all that secure in a Toyota. They’d probably just urge me to buy a new Toyota and get past it.
To take this a step further, modern cars are really nothing less than a set of computers with wheels on them. Anyone who has owned a modern car of 10 years age or more and experienced, say, a window problem has gone to the dealer and perhaps has been informed that the part is “obsolete.” It’s not at all like Star Trek where Scotty dutifully crosses wires the phasers to the life support systems. Modern cars require the exact plastic electronic subassembly, or else they don’t work. The vast majority of the plastic electronic subassemblies do not come apart, cannot be repaired, and are often replaced by more modern, less expensive and non-interchangeable versions in a year or two thereby rendering the original part obsolete. As a result of this constant search for reduced parts costs at the manufacturing level, your car becomes obsolete as well. Gone are the days when the car’s broken systems can be stripped to primary pieces, repaired and replaced into service.
The very fact that some electronic flaws don’t leave traces is undoubtedly a cause for celebration by the entire automotive industry. From the manufacturer down the tiers of subcontractors, they dance in the proverbial hallways that we are unable to point to their manufacturing process or materials to pinpoint the origin of electronic flaws. Hey, it wasn’t us, it was them. Ever since Watergate, it’s all been about plausible deniability. In short, I think that we’ve gone the wrong way with what we call technology today. In a quest to have ever the most up to the minute infotainment equipment in our cars, we’ve inadvertently played into the hands of the automotive company bean counters and prematurely obsoleted our own vehicles. What you will undoubtedly see years from now is a scarcity of modern restored or roadworthy cars from around 1995 or so and newer. Once broken these cars will simply melt into history being either too expensive to repair or else in need of obsolete parts that cost too much once you find them.