Car Guy

Post-Toyota Technology Transfer

Opting for more excessive, expensive technology to fix problems with the last batch.

By 4.7.10

Well, here we go again.

We're about to get another layer of expensive, overly complicated technology to fix the problems created by the existing layer of expensive, overly complicated technology.

Mazda has announced it will fit all its new cars (beginning with the 2011 models) with an electronic brake override system to address consumer concerns about unwanted, out-of-control acceleration -- which so far has been mainly a Toyota problem.

GM followed up by me-tooing Mazda, announcing on Monday that all its cars would have a similar system as well. And it's entirely likely that federal regulators will make the technology mandatory, given the hysteria whipped up by the Toyota debacle.

Never let a crisis go to waste, as Rahm Emanuel instructed.

The brake override system works by cutting engine power when the brake pedal is depressed -- in theory providing a fail-safe against unwanted acceleration.

The federal government is probably going to pass a law requiring that all new cars come equipped with this technology, which of course will add another layer of expense (no one knows yet how much) to the up-front costs of a new car as well as Elvis-knows-how-much to future repair and upkeep costs when the components involved begin to degrade and fail, as inevitably they will.

More wires and actuators, more software -- more money. More hassle. And very possibly, more problems -- none of them anticipated.

That's after all what happens with complex systems, such as the drive-by-wire technology that is apparently at the root of the problem with Toyota's cars. The mechanical cable connecting the gas pedal to the engine's throttle -- which controlled engine speed based on how much pressure the driver applied to the pedal -- was replaced by sensors and software and various electronic controls that did the same thing, only with much greater complexity.

The problem (aside from the higher cost) of the more complex system is there's more that can possibly go wrong -- and it';s typically much harder to determine what it might be.

With a cable, it's either stuck or frayed or broken -- or it's not. A visual inspection will tell you what's up within minutes. Then the problem can be fixed.

But when simple mechanical components are replaced with circuits and sensors and software code, there's less (maybe nothing) to see -- so it's harder to determine what went wrong. Also, with software there are bugs -- and these can be intermittent and wildly variable -- making it exasperatingly hard to isolate the trouble, as Toyota is discovering for its own self.

And now we're about to get another layer of gadgetry, to correct the problems with the previous underlying gadgetry.

What unexpected problems might crop up?

Well, it's certainly possible that a system designed to momentarily kill engine power when the brake is applied might just shut off your engine not so momentarily -- leaving you to coast to a stop by the side of some busy highway to await AAA. Maybe it will happen in a snowstorm, leaving you stuck with a dead car and no source of heat. Or in the middle of the desert. Or just the wrong part of town. An exaggerated fear? Maybe. But the bottom line fact is no one knows what may happen. So anything could happen.

And probably will.

Certainly, Toyota engineers did not expect Camrys and Corollas to come alive on their own and barrel down the road at triple digit speeds because of some haywire code, short-circuit or "ghost in the machine."

It just happened -- and no one yet knows why let alone how to fix it.

Comforting, isn't it?

This is why I revere my old muscle car -- a relic of the 1970s, long before computers were grafted onto cars to create these cyborgian conveyances. Acceleration is controlled physically, by my right foot -- which pushes on a gas pedal, which in turn increases tension on a cable that pulls back on the carburetor's throttle arm. If it sticks, a screwdriver and some WD-40 lubricant will suffice to fix it. There is no possibility of a "ghost in the machine" deciding to floor it for me, suddenly and without any warning. And if I want the engine to stop, well, there's the ignition key for that.

To quote Mr. T, I pity the fool. Or rather, the fools. That's us, by the way. We've made cars far more complicated and expensive than they need to be -- and now we're paying the price.

My bet is it's about to go up again, too.


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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.