Are there yet more bugs in your car's software?

Floor mats and pedal shims are highly visible, but invisible software is where the true geeks rule. How many thousand lines of code, did you say?

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Floor mats and pedal shims are highly visible, but invisible software is where the true geeks rule. How many thousand lines of code, did you say? The geeks mutter, "Is big problem."

By Jeff Bairstow

Has it now come to this? Before each road trip in the venerable family flivver, the pilot-in-command (PIC) will have to conduct a thorough pre-trip inspection with a competent crew member shouting off the key points from a checklist on a plastic card. Finally, the PIC will run through a software debug before the car will permit the PIC to fire up the ignition and the mighty engine (all 995 cc of it!) roars into life.

But wait minute! All I can hear is a Zen-like hum coming from the bowels of the car's trunk. OMMMMM....You gingerly insert the microchip-simulated gearshift into the correct USB port in your dashboard and mash the accelerator pedal, and the beast swiftly and silently tools out of your garage, then smashes its way–via your neighbor's newly installed white picket fence–into his swimming pool. This car does not swim.

"Could you do that again?" says the PIC's wife. "The camcorder needs new batteries."

Fanciful? Not in my view. Unintended acceleration? Not a problem. Your local dealer says, "Refit the floor mat."

More unintended acceleration? Your zone manager says, "Insert a shim."

More unintended acceleration? The marketing director says, "It's a software problem."

Trump that one! Floor mats and pedal shims are highly visible, but invisible software is where the true geeks rule. How many thousand lines of code, did you say? The geeks mutter, "Is big problem."

Imagine that this industrial drama could inspire a new form of Kabuki theater to be held on the beach of the Fountainbleau hotel: Enter left, geeks speaking geekspeak and wearing Birkenstocks. Enter right, members of the board prepared for the usual ritual hara-kiri and wearing Armani suits, followed by spin doctors, etc. Left does not know how to communicate with Right and vice versa. So who will win this epic battle? Keep an eye on Giorgio Armani in his Milan studios.

Many years ago, I too had the chance of bringing a leading British automaker to its knees. When I bought my first new car–actually, it was a Ford Anglia delivery van–I learned all about "unintended deceleration." This van was the ultimate in cheap personal transportation at that time. Ugly as sin, noisy (no radio), slow (50 mph max downhill, with a tail wind), cold (heater was extra), and unsafe at any speed (no seat belts). It met my needs at the time.

Until one day my poor little Anglia refused to pull smartly away from a traffic light in busy downtown Sheffield. I pressed the accelerator pedal and stirred the manual shift to no avail. Several healthy young Sheffielders took pity on me and helped me push the vehicle to a side street where we could lift the bonnet ("hood" in American) and perform the ritual examination of the engine.

Amazingly enough, one of these lads was an actual car mechanic, something of a rara avis in Britain at that time. "That's it," Ted said, pointing to one of the mechanical linkages between the accelerator pedal and the throttle of the carburetor. It was a rod with a small "C" clip normally holding it in position. As Ted observed, the clip had broken, probably due to my violent driving habits. So we replaced the clip and off I went–total cost, five pence for a new clip and five shillings for a couple of pints of Tetley's Best Bitter.

N.B. No recalls were required, no shims were manufactured, and no floor mats indicted in the course of this repair. And, of course, no software geeks or senior executives were ritually sacrificed.

Although I narrowly missed the opportunity to bring a then major UK automaker to its knees, I need not have worried about that since, one by one, they have since shot themselves in the foot. Sic transit gloria mundi!

Jeffrey Bairstow
Contributing Editor
inmyview@yahoo.com

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