Who’s Driving Your Car?

Until all the recent news stories about Toyotas with acceleration problems and brake problems, I never realized how overpowering computer software  is in making a car go these days.  No wonder the guys who grew up with cars as a hobby can no longer look under the hood and fix anything.

Just try to imagine as you are barreling down the highway at 70 miles per hour that Microsoft Internet Explorer is about as reliable as the innards of your hifalutin’ jalopy.  You turn onto a neighborhood street after exiting the highway.  It’s been raining just long enough to make the roads perilously slick.  You start to skid and suddenly you slam on the brakes.  Well guess what?  Those brakes do not engage or fail to engage because some guy with grease on his hands put in a mechanical device and tested it to make sure it worked.  No, what determines your ability to stop is a few million – yes I said million – lines of software code.  According to the New York Times, it’s up to 100 million!

Each computer in a car is called an electronic control unit, and there are about 30 of them in a modern car, more than in some jet fighters.  The recent Toyota problems which have led to serious injury and death worldwide are probably just symptoms of a much bigger problem waiting to happen.  Not only do all of the millions of lines of computer code have to be written correctly, each of the 30 separate computers in your car has to communicate with each other precisely and accurately.

So, from now on just remember.  Whenever you get behind the wheel of a car, drunk or sober, it isn’t really you who’s doing the driving.  Every turn of the wheel, tap of the foot, or finger on a button triggers a whole mess of interwoven lines of software code.  If any of it gets fouled up, sort of like the tangled heap of twisted lines on a fishing reel if your cast is off, then all the computers under the hood and in the trunk will have a quick little chat to decide what happens to you and your car.

And once you back the car out of your garage, you don’t get a chance to plug it into the Internet when Microsoft issues the latest round of updates for Patch Tuesday. That only happens if enough people complain after they leave the hospital, and the car company agrees to do a recall.  In the meantime, happy commuting in your computers on wheels.  (I don’t even own one of the things)!

Here are two interesting New York Times articles on this:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/05/technology/05electronics.html

http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2010/02/04/business/AP-US-TEC-Toyota-Car-Electronics.html

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