Cars are getting to be as complex as airplanes -– at least when it comes to lines of software code -- and while that makes driving more convenient, it may also be causing bugs and breakdowns along the road.
At the same time, car manufacturers are outsourcing hundreds of thousands of bits of technology that go into a modern car, making it tougher to ensure quality control. General Motors faces tough questions on Capitol Hill over the failure of an inexpensive ignition switch that may have led to the deaths of 13 people.
The switch turned the vehicle into accessory mode, which shut off power to airbags in the Cobalt, Saturn Ion and other vehicles.
On Wednesday, the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency told a Senate panel that the failure “doesn’t make sense to us” and said that scrambled computer logic could be to blame.
It’s just the latest in a string of bad news for carmakers:
Last week, Nissan issued a recall for about 1 million Altima, Leaf, Pathfinder, Sentra and Infiniti models with a software glitch that could prevent certain airbags from deploying during collisions.
In February, Toyota recalled nearly 2 million brand-new Priuses for a software bug that could cause the car to stall. Software was later found to be at fault in the runaway acceleration of the Prius that led to lawsuits, a recall of 10 million vehicles in 2009 and a $1.2 billion federal fine last month -- the largest in history.
GM in March recalled its new all-electric Cadillac ELR for a software glitch in its cruise control. It also just stopped selling the Chevrolet Cruze, but won’t say why.
Has something gone haywire under the hood?
The complexity of software in a vehicle is daunting, you can’t reboot it. You can’t open a window on your laptop and modify it in any way. It has to work in many modes of operation, not just driving down the road, but also when it’s cloudy, rainy, freezing or hot. It gets complicated very quickly.
Most vehicle software monitors sensors that provide diagnostic information on mechanical parts of the car and its engine. The average Ford in 2010 had 10 million lines of code, more than the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
As the number of embedded systems (software that works inside other devices) increase, so does the possibility for unanticipated failures. That’s because engineers can’t test for every combination.
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Software has tens of thousands of variables that interact in all kinds of ways. There are bugs that only occur in certain circumstances, you can’t predict.
While cars are safer than they were decades auto, automotive engineers have loaded up vehicles with lots of things that aren’t related to driving.
A lot of people like convenience. It’s getting exponentially worse where we are putting tele-informatics into the car so that it can work with an iPhone or something else.
Each one of these has forced the level of complexity through the roof.
Detroit automakers are under pressure to keep costs down, as as a result, are outsourcing more of their software coding to programmers overseas. That makes it more difficult to integrate it into the rest of the vehicle and check for bugs.
It’s difficult to dedicate the amount of resources to make sure it’s foolproof. If you were trying to make it engineering perfect you would have to spend an outrageous amount of money.
In the end, though, auto manufacturers end having to pay.
Why premium gas is a waste of money for most cars.
The vast majority of gasoline pumps in this country offer you three choices: regular gasoline (usually labeled as 87 octane), mid-grade (89 octane), and premium (92 or 93 octane).
Lots of people are uncertain about the differences between these gas types. Some imagine that occasionally treating their car to premium gas might increase performance or gas mileage — or somehow clean out the car's engine.
The truth: if your car is running smoothly and your manual doesn't instruct otherwise, there's absolutely no reason to waste money on premium or mid-grade gas.
In total, there are about 200 different hydrocarbons in gasoline, and one of these forms is especially noteworthy: isooctane. It's made up of 8 carbon and 18 hydrogen atoms bonded together in a particular way.
Isooctane is important because it's resistant to something bad that can happen inside a car's engine — a process formally known as detonation and more commonly called "knocking" or "pinging."
Combustion is what powers your car's wheels as it cruises down the road.
But the combustion doesn't happen instantaneously — it takes a brief moment for the flame to spread throughout the cylinder. And under certain conditions, the air and gas in more distant parts of the cylinder can independently start burning before the main flame has reached it (in some cases, before the spark plug has even gone off). This is called knocking or pinging — because of the sound that's sometimes made as the two flames collide — and it's not great for your car's engine.
Isooctane is relevant here because it requires especially high pressure to ignite, so gasoline blends that are high in octane are less likely to produce knocking. Its opposite is another hydrocarbon called n-heptane, which is especially prone to ignition — so if used alone would produce knocking regularly.
Because these two hydrocarbons are at the extremes, they're used as benchmarks to produce something called an octane rating. A fuel with an octane rating of 100 can withstand as much compression as pure octane before combusting. One with a rating of 0 combusts readily, like pure n-heptane.
Commercial gasoline falls in between. So-called premium gas has a 93 rating, which means it combusts as readily as a mix of 93 percent octane and 7 percent n-heptane (although it actually has a mix of many other hydrocarbons). Mid-grade has a rating of 89, and regular has a rating of 87.
Why you probably don't need to buy premium gas
All this might make it seem like buying premium gas is a good idea. But in truth, for the vast majority of cars on the market, it's simply not necessary to prevent knocking.
The main reason is that these cars are specifically designed to run on gasoline with an 87 rating. The amount of pressure created by their engines' pistons does not generally lead 87-rated gas to detonate without a spark plug, so knocking does not occur.
In addition, most cars built since 1996 or so are equipped with something called a knock sensor. This device detects knocking and alters the timing of the spark plug firing to stop it from happening. And even if you do hear a ping or knock here or there, it's not the end of the world. If it happens on a routine basis, the extra pressure it creates can cause damage to the engine, but occasionally knocking won't do a ton of harm.
The phrase "high-octane gasoline" might sound like it packs more energy — so could theoretically give you better gas mileage — but that's simply not the case. There's also a persistent myth that an occasional tank of premium gas will clean out deposits in your car's engine, but that's not true either.
Premium gas won't cause any damage to your car, but its downside is obvious: it costs more money, typically 20 cents per gallon.
The rare cases where premium gas is actually worth it
A minority of cars — typically high-performance luxury vehicles — is designed with mid-grade or premium gas in mind. The car's manual (and probably its salesperson) will tell you if this is the case. Using premium gas can allow automakers to design cylinders that create more pressure before combustion occurs, which in turn allows them to extract more power from gasoline. (It doesn't mean, however, that putting premium gas in a normal engine will lead to more power — it's the cylinder design that's crucial.)
On the whole, these cars will get slightly better performance from premium gas. But in many cases they'll still be fine with regular — they won't accelerate quite as powerfully, but their knock sensors will generally be able to prevent knocking. Some of these cars, however, do require premium on a consistent basis.
The one exception: if you're forcing the engine to do a ton of work — say, climbing up a hill while accelerating and carrying a high amount of weight or towing a trailer from Calagry to Vancouver,— the knock sensor may not be able to compensate. If you hear a lot of knocking from your car's engine when you're pushing it hard, that will justify paying a bit more for premium gasoline.
But in most cases for even fancy cars — and in all cases for normal cars — regular gas will do just fine.
Why vintage car prices keep rising.
A 1963 Ferrari 250 GTO racer has become the world’s most expensive car, selling for $52 million.
The reason is that most modern cars are now too complex to own forever. In the past, "automotive complexity" meant your car had a set of power mirrors that tilted down when you shifted into reverse, and — if you were lucky — tilted back up sometime later. But in today's automotive universe, "complex" is taking on a whole new meaning.
For instance, look at the all-new 2015 Volvo XC90, a luxury crossover that replaces the current Volvo XC90. Although Volvo has not yet revealed what the new XC90 will look like, the automaker did announce the powertrain. Have you heard about this yet? If you haven't, get ready, because it's a whopper.
Let's start with the basics: the new XC90 will use a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. That doesn't sound so complicated, right? Only, there's a problem: it also uses a turbocharger. OK, fine, so what? Volvo is a master of turbocharged technology. But there's yet another level of complexity here: the engine also has a supercharger. So now we're dealing with a turbocharged-supercharged 2.0-liter 4-cylinder. Manufactured by Volvo.
Unfortunately, it gets even more complicated than that! After going through the process of turbocharging and supercharging this engine, Volvo decided to mate it to a plug-in hybrid drivetrain. So the new XC90 "T8" uses a 2.0-liter turbocharged supercharged plug-in hybrid 4-cylinder that makes an almost insane 400 horsepower and 472 lb-ft of torque. This is a vast departure from, say, the Volvo 240, which also used a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, though it made about the same horsepower as an Electrolux.
Of course, Volvo isn't the only automaker who's adding complexity to the modern car. Consider, for a minute, modern infotainment systems. Oh, sure, it's cool to have Pandora and I Heart Radio, and Stitcher, and all sorts of other new technology that no one seems to really use, but everyone wants in their car.
But what about in 10 years, when these things aren't cool anymore? "Oh, you have Stitcher?" someone will say, glaring at your pathetically outdated infotainment system.
"I stopped using that right about the time the flying iPhone came out!" And then they'll laugh and laugh, and you'll plug in your phone to your hilariously old USB port to charge it, even though all your modern, up-to-date friends charge their shiny new devices by simply licking the screen. Also, your friends can teleport.
And then there are all the modern safety advancements everyone keeps getting so excited about. You know the ones: rear cross-traffic alert. Blind spot warning. Lane keeping assistant. What's going to happen to these features in 10 years? Will they work flawlessly? Or will they fail, one by one, until your dealership service writer calls you and says: "I'm sorry, ma'am, but your Ford Explorer won't move anywhere, because the adaptive cruise control perpetually thinks there's a chicken in the road."
Now, let me be clear: I'm not at all anti-technology. In fact, I happen to love technology, because it allows me to walk around, and take pictures of stuff, and post them on Facebook for everyone to see.
And it allows you to reply with various comments insulting my hairstyle. But with today's push to get so many gadgets into every new car, is it possible to own a modern car forever, like my Volvo-driving friends? I fear the answer might be no. I fear the days of long-term vehicle ownership have come to an end. I fear the idea of a "forever" car might really be over. Because here's the thing: warranty doesn't last forever.
So that vintage cars, that are simply mechanical devices can be duplicated, replicated and rebuilt forever. By comparison, what will happen to a Bugatti Veyron, when the software that runs the whole car is obsolete and no longer available? The car will simply be unable to start or run and it won't be repairable. Period.
Washington. New research published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal this month has concluded that the widespread adoption of hybrid and all-electric vehicles wouldn't drastically reduce the emission of harmful gases.
Looking at carbon dioxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen oxides, the study's authors point out that "passenger vehicles make up a relatively small share of total emissions" — only 20 percent of all carbon dioxide — so even if we all jumped into a Nissan Leaf, that wouldn't by itself fix the problem of air pollution.
Moreover, the research reiterates the perennial complaint about electric cars: they nullify the pollutants coming out of the car itself, but also increase pollution from power plants that have to produce their energy.
Produced by North Carolina State University, this study is based on modeling the gas emission patterns over the next 40 years while altering energy system variables like oil prices and battery cost. At its most optimistic, it suggests that by 2050 some 40 percent of cars in the US might be either hybrids or entirely electric, even then the researchers "do not see a noticeable reduction compared to even 0 percent EDV deployment."
I could now write a whole blog about this conclusion, but it really speaks for itself and clearly explains why I don't think you should own a battery car. It doesn't make sense on any level - economic or environmental. -PGB.
I doubt that I’m alone in feeling a bit disturbed by the media’s breathless coverage of the autonomous car and the industry’s aggressive forecasts for it.
Sure, seeing a glimpse of how Google Car is driving on surface streets in Mountain View, Calif., is exciting. But when I hear BMW predicting fully automated cars by 2025, I can’t help but say, “Oh, come on, man.”
Granted: Ten years is an eternity in the Internet era.
But picture a “driver” in an autonomous car in 2025 trying to go from Russia to Germany, or New York to Florida? Each country and, in the case of the United States, each state, has different vehicle regulations. Aligning all the laws and regulations in 10 years will be no easy task.
I suspect what’s discussed today as an "autonomous car" is likely to emerge in phases. These cars in each phase will come with fine print stipulating the conditions under which they must be driven.
Obviously, the automotive industry and technology suppliers have every incentive to paint a bright future for autonomous cars. It’s not just BMW. Practically every carmaker is hot to trot out multiple ADAS (advanced driving assistance system) features in their new models.
Everyone's gunning for the top overall rating of five stars from the New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) -- either the Euro or North American version -- which publishes safety reports on new cars.
But when car companies start pitching ADAS as an important first step for the self-driving car era, well, let’s not hold our breath. After all, highly automated cars and autonomous cars aren’t the same thing. In fact, there’s a huge gap.
Driving ADAS won’t be just sensor ICs, radar, and cameras, although they are a big part of what constitutes the ADAS chip market today.
Other components contributing to ADAS growth include microprocessors, microcontrollers, FPGAs, and memory. If image sensors are equivalent to “cars’ eyes,” these are the “cars’ brain,”.
Either way, how many more “advanced” driver assistance features a car is designed to offer determines the level of the processors, radars, and sensors the car requires.
Evolution from ADAS to autonomous to fully autonomous.
ADAS, in fact, comes into two classes: passive and active. Passive ADAS, for example, warns a driver when the car starts to veer off the center of a lane. It takes active ADAS for the car to actually intervene, by nudging the steering wheel and putting the car back on center. Active ADAS, if necessary, would brake the car if it sees imminent danger on the road ahead. In contrast, passive ADAS would simply warn the driver.
In implementing active ADAS functions such as automatic emergency braking (AEB), adaptive cruise control (ACC), and lane keeping assist (LKA), we are asking the car to interpret road signs and road conditions, make an appropriate decision, and take the wheel from the driver. Surely, this level of control would require a redundant system to be built in, so that the extra computational power would double-check the situation.
Some ADAS functions such as automatic braking, steering, and platooning are expected to emerge in the next five years, according to the IHS analyst. But again, that’s not the same thing as autonomous cars, he cautions.
In order to make a car self-driving, carmakers need to first connect all the systems together. Separate ADAS features should no longer operate independently. They need to be integrated into one coherent system so that a car can drive itself from point A to point B without driver involvement.
But even then, autonomous cars aren’t the same as “fully autonomous cars,”. The autonomous car will initially coming with different constraints -- in terms of when, where, and how a driver can use the car in autonomous mode. More specifically, there will be specific constraints such as which streets accommodate autonomous driving, at what speed, under what weather conditions (no snow, for example!), and so on.
That’s a lot of restrictions, when you come to think of it.
My forecast? I’ll be surprised if you are riding shotgun in a fully autonomous car -- without any of those constraints -- 30 years from now.
I won't be around and I'm not sure I care - at least as a car enthusiast.
You may have noticed that I don't generally bother to mention air bag recalls on my recall page.
Lately, I've also been ignoring GMs' ignition switch problem because it's so huge that even Brian Williams has noticed,
being diverted away form his fascination with dust bowls (has happened before), floods (has happened many times before)
and forest fires (they happen all the time).
I have long held the opinion that airbags are credited with saving lives, when their effect in any given crash is debatable.
People call me up and ask how many air bags a particular model of car has, as though that was the only criteria by which a
new car should be chosen.
The real question is how many seat belts does the car have, because all the responsibility for your safety lies with the belts
and not with the air bags.
For instance and in confirmation of this, when New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine was critically injured in an SUV crash,
investigators now concede that the SUV was doing 91 mph in a 65 mph zone with its emergency lights flashing.
Corzine – who was in critical condition – was on his way to a meeting between radio personality Don Imus
and the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, and was reportedly running late.
The SUV crashed into a guard-rail and Corzine, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt at the time, suffered multiple broken bones.
The trooper behind the wheel was wearing his seat belt and had minor injuries.
Corzine broke a thigh bone, ribs, his breastbone and collarbone. Doctors say it could be six months before he regains the use
of his leg.
My question is:
Where were the air bags in all of this and what were they doing? They undoubtedly deployed, but as long has been the case, they
were absolutely useless without the primary protection provided by the seat belts.
Air bags were initially designed to protect an unbelted adult male in a 30 mph crash. But do air bags protect a child passenger?
And are air bags really effective in protecting unrestrained adults?
Air bags are said to reduce the overall risk of passenger death in all crashes by 12 percent, but for some passengers
- including young children - air bags may increase the overall risk of death.
While air bags reduced the risk of death by 15 percent for restrained passengers in crashes, air bags afforded no protection
against death or serious injury for those passengers who weren't wearing seat belts.
Air bags are associated with a net increase in the risk of death among children ages 12 and under.
Because the effect of air bags may be related to passenger age, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ruled in
1997 that vehicle owners could have a switch installed to deactivate a passenger air bag and I wonder what that tells us
- exactly? Probably that the air bag is not considered to be vital to the survival of passengers in a crash.
The agency also advised that children younger than 13 years old should ride in the rear seat and that, of-course, is a no brainer.
Children do NOT belong in the front seats of a vehicle, although I think that the specified age of thirteen is probably a bit restrictive
and over zealous.
Although air bags were intended to offer protection to passengers who aren't restrained, they are a hazard to unrestrained children
and offer little benefit to unrestrained adults. This unfortunate accident last week once again supports the conclusion that the theory
of "no seat belt, no protection" really holds true.
Sometimes it isn't possible to put a child in the rear seat because the vehicle may lack a rear seat or that seat is already filled with
other children, in which case, a bigger vehicle may be needed, or if the transportation of children is a regular occurrence,
a seat belt switch may be installed, with a special release from the DoT.
A lot of pick up trucks already have passengers side air bag switches for this very reason..
We chose another (our third) Mazda3 for several reasons:
First because the previous two had been bullet proof reliable. Secondly for "zoom-zoom" road worthiness and lastly for fuel economy.
The first four months of this cars' life, with a stiff engine, was spent on short runs and cold garage starts.
One very useful feature on this car is a fuel economy graphic read out that analyses overall economy and instantaneous economy based on this journey.
Every time you turn off the engine, the instant average fuel economy is recalculated, but you have to manually delete the long term economy calculation.
The first four months gave a read out of 8.1 liters per 100 km ( L/100k), a disappointing 33 mpg.
However, this long weekend we made a long distance run to LaMabaie, a distance of 900 Km return.
The journey from Montreal to Quebec City is flat, straight and utterly boring. Setting the cruise control at the "forgiveness" speed of 118 Km/h produced an astounding 5.7 L/110k, or 47 mpg.
After Quebec City, along the North Shore of the St Lawrence River, the road undulates, with steep hills and equally steep declines. Cruise control mostly cannot be used, due to the varying 2 lane road system. Nevertheless, the fuel economy readout continued to say we were only using 6 L/100Km, or 45 mpg.
At the end of the run, upon arrival in LaMabaie, the range indicator said we still had enough fuel to go back to Montreal without filling up. This type of fuel economy is almost as good as the Citroen Diesel that we used in Spain. There, the speed limits are much higher and even then, the diesel gave us 5.3 L/100km (51 mpg).
Our overall lifetime fuel economy has been reduced to 7.1 from 8.1 L/100Km
On the steep and winding roads of the Charlevoix region, the brakes, handling and steering were exceptionally good. Particularly over some quite badly pot holed sections of road. On very steep hills, the manual override feature of the transmission was useful in saving the brakes, but is not put to too much use otherwise. The seats are comfortable and supportive.
Cruise control is digital. Consequently, you can dial in your desired cruising speed ahead of time. It is not necessary to wait for an indicated speed to set the system. With such memory, the resume button on the steering wheel is also very useful.
The rain sensing wipers work in a more sensitive and intelligent way than on our first 3, but still fall into the category of "nice to have, but not really necessary".
The engine is so quiet that on a couple of occasions we started to walk away from the car, leaving the engine running. This is one of the downsides of push button starting, but we've gotten used to that somewhat unnecessary feature by now. You could argue, in view of GMs' problem with ignition switches, that push button starts are better, but only if you don't know how to design an ignition switch properly. No other manufacturer has had this problem.
One disappointment is that the side mirrors have flashers built in, but for some strange reason the driver cannot see the flashing. It would have been really useful to have that extra reminder that your indicators failed to cancel, if such is the case. I'm trying to devise some sort of prism or lens that will reflect visible light around the corner of the mirror.
Finally, for now, we had 3,900 kliks on the odometer when the 4 month period arrived, at which time the owners manual tells you that you must change the oil. So, at the time of the summer tire installation, I got my friendly independent garage to show a "complimentary, no charge" oil change on my invoice. My guess is that at the time of winter tire installation we will have covered the more reasonable oil change distance of 8000 Km and we will switch to a full synthetic 5W30 and proceed from there.
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