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Computerized Cars: Brave New World of Risk

March 07, 2001|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ever since those idiot lights began appearing in cars in the 1960s, automotive electronics have encroached on the authority--and in many cases the sanity--of drivers.

But dramatic new challenges and risks are confronting motorists from the increasingly sophisticated data networks in today's cars, networks that link up to 80 microprocessors that run complex real-time software.

As cars and trucks become even more computerized, they will be more efficient, more responsive, safer and, on average, more reliable. But electronic controls and their software will pose complex new problems under the hood, cause breathtaking inflation of repair costs and raise difficult privacy issues.

Computers already are empowered to apply brakes automatically to improve vehicle stability on many cars. Futurists see the day when computers will take over steering to avoid collisions, prepare brakes for emergency stops and monitor a driver's biological functions for possible intervention.

But all this technology carries with it the disturbing risk of failure.

The industry "'is scared to death" that false readings could trigger highway mishaps, says J. Karl Hedrick, engineering professor at UC Berkeley. "They don't want the brakes slammed on when they aren't supposed to be," he said.

So far, auto makers and their suppliers are taking the most conservative possible approach, involving years of development and rigorous testing that far exceed common practice in the consumer electronics market. The industry is pushing for redundancy to provide backups to key electronic systems and for software that can self-correct when it fails.

"Logic is that, as systems get more complex, there are more opportunities for error," said John Sinelli, an engineer for Visteon, a major U.S. automotive electronics supplier. "But we have very extensive testing to ensure you don't have bugs."

Yet, as the industry pushes the boundaries of automotive electronics, software and hardware glitches are beginning to pop up, according to a random sampling of technical service bulletins compiled by AllData, an Elk Grove, Calif., repair information specialist.

Chrysler, for example, issued a bulletin last year that said 17,300 Concord models could have defective software that incapacitates the security system and reduces air-conditioner output.

General Motors Corp. issued a bulletin in October 1999 for its Cadillac Escalade sport-utility vehicle, warning that the air bags could be deactivated if a mechanic were to improperly code the vehicle identification number into newly installed computers for the air-conditioning system, powertrain, dashboard or suspension.

Just last year, Ford warned mechanics that speedometers could be disabled on its F-150 pickup trucks by installing a new powertrain control module for the engine and transmission.

Sometimes, mechanics don't know what's causing these problems and mistakenly replace expensive computer control modules. In a bulletin last year, GM engineers told dealerships: "A significant number of powertrain control modules that are returned to GM test out with no trouble found." GM went on to warn dealers that it would not pay for faulty warranty repairs.

Independent mechanics, meanwhile, also are facing tough times because of the cost of equipment needed to deal with the new electronics and software. As an apparent favor to independent mechanics, Honda sells a tester for electronics in its 1992 to 1998 Accord models. The cost: $2,995. An extra $19.95 gets a video entitled: "getting started."

Another little-recognized downside to the electronic car is the enormous electrical generating burden such systems impose, according to Alex Lidow, chief executive of International Rectifier of El Segundo. By 2010, safety, entertainment and communications gear on cars will boost electrical consumption to 4,000 watts, roughly quadruple the present requirement.

It makes sense only if electronics vastly improve a car's efficiency, says Lidow, whose company supplies digital signal processors to the auto trade. To get there will require a revolution in car design, including more efficient electrical devices.

It's not just the embedded microprocessors that handle mechanical and safety systems that are transforming cars. "Telematics," which include navigation, communications and entertainment systems, also are coming on strong--with their own social and political issues.

Computerized networks on cars have what engineers call gateways, allowing the engine to communicate with the safety system or the brakes to communicate with the suspension. With telematics, for example, these gateways link the security system with the wireless communication system.

The trends are stirring debate about privacy issues, so far largely confined to engineering circles and government agencies like the California Air Resources Board.

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