HIgh-tech electrical glitches in cars

Andre Kesteloot andre.kesteloot at verizon.net
Fri Feb 25 20:18:42 CST 2005

     From the Washington Times, 25 Feb 2005

André N4ICK


    High-tech electrical glitches create woe

By Michelle Krebs
Published February 25, 2005
Last fall, as the new models came out, I had a flurry of mechanical 
problems with various cars I test drove.
    Granted, automotive journalists in Detroit get the first crack at 
the new models, many of which are preproduction ones built in the early 
days of the assembly run of the vehicles and, as such, they cannot be 
sold to the public.
    Still, there were more mechanical problems than I had ever 
experienced, covering every brand from every region of the world -- 
United States, Europe, Asia -- and every price range -- from entry level 
to expensive luxury cars. Further, in almost every case, electronic 
demons were to blame.
    I was coming home late one night from a movie when the luxury car I 
was driving lost its various systems one by one: first the chassis 
control, then the transmission, and ultimately engine power. When it 
finally limped into my driveway, the car had smoke billowing from 
underneath, and unburned fuel dripping from the exhaust pipe. My 
engineer neighbors were sure it had blown a head gasket. That wasn't it 
at all.
    The very next week another car, a different brand, informed me it 
was having transmission problems and automatically put the car into limp 
mode. Turns out it was not having transmission problems; the diagnostics 
simply said it was.
    With yet another luxury car, the backseat windows failed to close 
all the way up into the seals, letting outside noise enter the cabin and 
puddles to form on the back seats after a rain. An entry-level car I was 
driving had a dead battery for no apparent reason. Interestingly, the 
bottom line was that in virtually every case the root of the problems 
determined after various examinations, was associated with electronics: 
a computer chip here, a fuse there, a misreading diagnostic system.
    In the case of the smoking luxury car, it was a simple chip in the 
engine control module that set the problems into dominolike motion. The 
engineer assigned to tear the car apart to find the problem said I 
should have played the lottery that day, because the odds were about 3 
in 750,000 that such a chip would go bad. In fact, that's how many chips 
this German supplier makes for automakers, including Europe's famed 
luxury brands, as well as U.S. marques.
    It would not have mattered to me whether the occurrence was rare if 
I had been a customer who had just plunked down $50,000-plus for the 
car, I told him.
    The good news was it was easily fixed. Pop in a new chip, and it was 
ready to go again. Nonetheless, confidence in a brand-new vehicle is 
shaken once it has had a breakdown.
    So it came as no surprise to read a recent report that automotive 
recalls, both government issued and automaker volunteered, hit record 
levels in 2004. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said 
30.6 million vehicles were recalled in the United States for 598 
technical faults, compared with 541 technical recalls affecting 24.6 
million vehicles in 2000. NHTSA confirmed that the record level of 
recalls was due to tougher federal standards, and also to a greater use 
of electronics that are prone to glitches in cars.
    The report should have come as no surprise to those of us who read 
customer satisfaction surveys from other countries, including Germany, 
where Mercedes-Benz has been clobbered because of electronic glitches in 
its new high-tech features. Mercedes-Benz was determined to be the auto 
industry's technology leader, duking it out with BMW, but has since 
backed off a bit. The electronics issues, and resulting bad feedback 
from customers, are one reason for that.
    The solution will be difficult. Automakers have little clout with 
chip and electronics makers, who supply many other industries, and will 
find it difficult to put pressure on them for even higher quality.
    What is clear, however, is that as these high-tech luxury gizmos 
proliferate down to lower-level models, the problems and the recalls 
will likely proliferate as well, and new levels of pampering will be 
required to soothe the feelings of disappointed customers.

Copyright © 2005 News World Communications, Inc. All rights reserved.


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