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Increase in computers likely means more troubles for carmakers

MarketWatch

SAN FRANCISCO — Who's really driving your car? • In an ominous line from the classic 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, a computer named HAL 9000 claimed it was "by any practical definition of the words, foolproof and incapable of error." • Of course, HAL was "self-aware" and became more than just a little dangerous, killing four crewmates before the fifth one managed to shut it down.

Science fiction? Sure. But while the tiny computers tasked to manage today's vehicles aren't consciously plotting against mankind, they present manufacturers and drivers with a whole new set of potential problems that can't be solved with a wrench.

Toyota Motor Corp., for instance, recently recalled about 400,000 model year 2010 Prius hybrids. The flagship high-tech gas sipper suffers from a software glitch that keeps the brakes from responding appropriately.

This comes on the heels of the 8 million vehicles the company previously recalled for sticky pedals and floor mats — problems that Toyota says are mechanical.

Still, there has been speculation, including some disturbing words from the likes of Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, that software programs may in fact be a much bigger issue than Toyota is acknowledging.

Now, fresh reports have begun to surface that Toyota is facing yet another problem, this time with the electric power steering on its 2009 and 2010 Corollas, the second bestselling vehicle in the United States.

The headlines might make it appear otherwise, but the growing pains brought on by new-fangled technology don't begin and end with the world's biggest automaker.

Earlier this month, Ford Motor Co. announced a thinly veiled recall of its own by issuing what it called a "customer satisfaction program" to the 17,600 owners of its Fusion and Mercury Milan hybrids. Like Toyota, the fix involves updating the program to ensure the cars' brakes respond in real time.

So when does it end? Not anytime soon, according to Edmunds.com chief executive Jeremy Anwyl, who urged competitors not to feel too smug about Toyota problems. "As these vehicles grow in technical complexity, we'll see more and more mysterious situations that are very hard to diagnose," he said.

Anwyl went on to say that there should be an audit trail that actually makes it easier to figure out when and where a problem arises, though that's not always the case.

Michael Robinet, an automotive analyst for CSM Worldwide in Michigan, said that what we've seen so far in terms of bringing electronics into the vehicles is "just the tip of the iceberg."

"There are always going to be some bumps in the road along the way, but the public should bear in mind that it's just the nature of the beast," Robinet said. "We're talking about machines that have 3,000 parts working to come together in harmony."

In order to meet more stringent mileage and emissions standards, carmakers have no choice but to concentrate on making the push, he added.

Microprocessors are used for a range of functions, from controlling a car's engine, brakes and security systems, to running its navigation and entertainment systems. Chips and high-tech components have also played an increasing role in safety, warning about collision dangers while cars are backing up or changing lanes.

Increase in computers likely means more troubles for carmakers 04/06/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 5:30am]
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