Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Resting Poultry

Although Toyota Corporation is the one in the soup presently I firmly believe that most other auto firms will be joining the bouillabasse in due course. This happenstance will be not be because of laxness or perfidy on the part of auto makers but rather the result of the technological chickens coming home to roost. Cars have of course increased in complexity steadily since the first quadracycle tootled down the first 19th century inventor's cobbled driveway but the trend has gathered major momentum in the last several decades. The last decade in particular has seen enormous increases in vehicle complexity under the ever greater lash of government mandates in headlong pursuit of greater fuel efficiency, exhaust pollution reduction, crash safety, recyclability, and a mishmash of politically driven "green" initiatives of sundry, and sometimes contradictory, mien.

There is no other consumer product on planet Earth that is more intensively regulated than automobiles sold in the United States--period. Noting else even comes close. To address this regulatory tsunami, and to not go out of business by not selling enough product, manufacturers have been forced to increase the complexity of vehicles to the point where even jet fighters and space shuttles might blush in embarrassment.

It should be obvious, but isn't to many, that the more complex a product the greater the likelihood that one of its parts will fail. If you make a device with ten simple parts the failure rate of the device is as a whole usually very low. If you make a device with a thousand parts the likelihood of one of those parts failing is considerably higher. If you make a device with ten thousand parts the failure of one of the components is guaranteed. At least it's guaranteed in a product that the bulk of the population can afford and even in the case of mid six-figure priced vehicles the failure of a component is hardly unusual.

One amelioration to this statistical inevitability is the concept of redundancy wherein a backup system will kick in when a critical component fails. All well and good but this approach is hardly viable in a consumer product. It is nonsensical to expect a useful level of component redundancy in an automobile. Aside from being largely impractical on an operational level major redundancy capabilities in cars would be hugely expensive and would drastically increase weight and lower fuel efficiency. A Smart Car would weigh as much as a current Mercedes E500 with such an approach--and would cost about the same as well.

There is another issue which gets little MSM coverage, unsurprisingly given the base ignorance of the non-automotive press, and that is that as vehicle systems become more complex and more under the control of computers the less the practicality of manual control of many systems. Regulation demands ever higher levels of performance, in all terms, which perforce means less direct control by the driver. To wit: Engines have become so complex and computer controlled that they no longer need, or even can accomodate, something as simple as an accelerator control cable. Electrically and hydraulically boosted computer controlled anti-lock brake systems are increasingly difficult to configure with something as simple as direct foot-operated mechanical rods or cables. Even steering systems are starting to appear that only have electronic connections between steering wheels and the cars actual steering mechanisms.

Until fairly recently if one's power steering or power brakes failed a vehicle might become much harder to steer or stop but it was still quite possible to do either. Throttles virtually always had a mechanical connection to a vehicle's fuel injection system with return springs that assured that an engine runaway was vanishingly unlikely. Now this mechanical "fail safe" tendency is rapidly disappearing. Increasingly throttles, steering wheels and even brake pedals are connected only to electronic sensors which signal the vehicle's computer, many computers actually, to accelerate, change direction, or stop according to the driver's needs. The darlings of enviros, hybrid vehicles, are even more complex, sometimes hugely so.

This trend toward much greater complexity is making vehicles more failure prone not less and therefore less safe. These new systems are very complex and rely on many sensors, electrical actuators, and, equally if not even more problematic, hundreds of thousands or millions of lines of computer code. At this level of complexity some sort of failure is essentially inevitable. What's worse is that failure of any given part is entirely unpredictable.

The computer sitting on your desk, however expensive, can be relied on to crash on a fairly regular basis. This can be an inconvenience, even a serious one, but restarting usually puts things to right although the loss of data may be a big pain. The computers in vehicles may be more reliable than home units but they are hardly immune to glitches, bugs, and internal component failure. The problem, rather obviously, is that the failure of a vehicle computer can have far deadlier consequences than merely losing the text of an email you were composing on your lap top.

If your home computer's mouse fails you run down to Best Buy or Walmart and pick up a new one. If the hard drive, the power supply, or the screen fails, the fix might be so expensive that you retire the offending device and buy a whole new one. In a vehicle if a sensor, actuator, or buggy line of code causes serious problems at 70mph on the freeway it won't matter a damn if replacement parts are readily available at a dealer because you may be stuck, possibly injured, and maybe slightly dead due to the failure.

Nothing made by the hand of man or machine is perfect. Out of a million things made by that hand or that machine a certain number of them will break, not work properly, or fail to work at all. As vehicles rapidly become more complex under the lash of regulation born of consequence-be-damned green hysteria such failures as currently bedevil Toyota will spread to all auto makers. The more technologically advanced vehicles become the more unreliable they will inevitably be. And due to the anti-corporate hyperventilations of the Progressive political class the trend shows little sign of abating.

Happy freakin' motoring.

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