Auto Service World
Feature   October 1, 2005   by Jim Anderson,Editor

Electronics: How much is too much?

Regular readers of this column may recall that I'm not the biggest fan of in-vehicle electronics. I know that engine management hardware and software is necessary for modern emissions and performance,...

Regular readers of this column may recall that I’m not the biggest fan of in-vehicle electronics. I know that engine management hardware and software is necessary for modern emissions and performance, and I’ll accept it as part of the entertainment system (which used to be called a “radio”) but in my opinion the proliferation of computer controlled gadgets and useless accessories has reached a ridiculous level. In their attempt to give the marketing people something new to sell, the automotive engineering community has equipped modern vehicles with digital technologies that allow software to control vehicle systems that simply don’t need them. Take climate control for example. “Back in the day”, three controls did the job. One selected temperature, one fan speed, and one diverted the air in your face, on your feet, or on the windshield. Cables or vacuum valves controlled the action, and as I recall, getting the interior to a comfortable temperature was no problem. I recently rented a car in Chicago that required reading the owner’s manual to figure out how to get cold air through the dash vents. I don’t care what the actual interior temperature is, and I don’t need an LCD screen to show me the fan speed. And tiered menus to get the settings right is plain crazy. BMW has discovered the limits of consumer acceptance with their “iDrive” system, which has been simplified recently, and even the venerable Daimler-Benz has conceded that recent quality problems are related to excessive vehicle electronic complexity. It will get worse with time, as the new CAN protocol will allow even the most basic vehicle electrical systems to be computer controlled. Brake lights, turn signals, the glove compartment light, all of it will function through software. Why? The number one answer is cost. If a manufacturer can run one wire to the rear of the vehicle to control brake, stop and turn signals, plus interior lighting and maybe the fuel sender unit, costs drop. The “black box” required at either end to convert the analogue signals that human beings need, to digital signals that can be multiplexed on a singe wire are cheap and getting cheaper. Believe it or not, they’re also getting more reliable compared to the digital systems they replace. And that’s where it’s gone wrong. The processors have so much unused capacity in automotive applications that adding more functions was inevitable. “If we can do it, we should” has become an engineering truism, as is the fear that if “we don’t do it our competition will”. As a result, there are so many software controlled functions that poor reliability becomes a statistical inevitability. Canadian consumers don’t help. They fall in love with the gadgets on the showroom floor, and then whine about the cost of repair when the car leaves warranty. Need automatic headlight dimmers and collision avoidance radar? Then be prepared to pay for it when it breaks! I have a much-loved 1988 Ford Mustang which is as stripped as they come. No A/C, manual windows and seats, mechanical gauges, cable operated clutch and conventional halogen headlamps. When I depress the accelerator, a cable pulls the throttle butterfly. Reliable? You bet, and fast with the 5.0 V-8, even by today’s standards. So far, cranking down my own windows hasn’t hurt me a bit. Neither has not having to spend time and money working on the car either. There is a beneficial level of technology, and a level that drives our industry’s bottom line, but when I see good vehicles in the wrecker’s yard because it’s too expensive to replace a transmission controller, something is seriously wrong.