One Car: Hold the Electronics, Please

Electronics were not to blame for unintended acceleration problems in Toyota vehicles, and for that I am profoundly grateful. Not just because I own a Toyota, but because I wouldn't want to see the electronics industry get a black eye.

That said, I want fewer electronics in my car. Even though my car seems to be performing safely overall, little technical glitches are driving me crazy. Now, it looks as if my local mechanic will need an electrical engineer on hand.

IDC this week announced it would conduct a joint study with the Society of Automotive Engineers on the impact of increased vehicle technology on service, diagnostics, and technician safety. The study targets not only the technicians at dealerships and independent repair facilities, but also the OEMs and suppliers that design, engineer, tool, and produce the vehicles.

Most of the cars produced today have triple the amount of software code in electronic control units (ECUs) per vehicle, compared to previous models, according to IDC. With new electric and hybrid technologies, and the increased number of aftermarket devices in vehicles, the complexity of vehicle system diagnostics and service is intensifying every day.

“The potential needs and gaps in capabilities for servicing new vehicles could have a profound effect on market adoption, OEM warranty repair costs, and technician service efficiency and safety,” says Sheila Brennan, program manager, Product Life-Cycle Strategies Practice at IDC Manufacturing Insights.

No kidding. In the past few years, my family's cars — not all Toyotas — have failed state inspections because of a faulty tail light connector and an unknown problem that caused the “check engine” light to stay on (an automatic failure in Massachusetts). We've also had two electric windows fall into the door panels (never to be seen again) and broken door handles — yes, handles — that cost a fortune to repair because of the electronic locks. Oh, and my friend's car had an automatic sliding door would “go rogue” whenever the car hit a pothole. They never figured that one out.

A number of years ago, a premium car maker scaled back the amount of electronics in its cars because of a “trust” issue. Although there was only a minor technical problem with its steering wheel adjustment, the maker reasoned that, if it didn't act, customers might become distrustful of the car's major electronics systems.

I plead guilty to that charge.

As it turns out (pun intended), my engine light problem was solved by driving a long distance, and I'm managing to live with one door out of action. Car makers are clearly focusing on the big stuff. But my enthusiasm for auto electronics has been dampened by these mishaps. The fewer electronics our mechanic has to deal with, the better.

30 comments on “One Car: Hold the Electronics, Please

  1. Eldredge
    March 8, 2011

    Electronics in automobiles has definitely been a double-edged sword. When the electronic gadgets (and the necessities as well) work as they should, everything is great. When they don't, they can be much more difficult to diagnose and repair, and can cost significantly more than the older technology to correct.

  2. Parser
    March 8, 2011

    Actually mechanics are trained to use test stations for ECUs. Optimum car handling, efficiency and safety are only possible with extensive electronics. Science overlooking application of electro-mechanical systems used by people is very much developed to assure safety and reliability as well as conduct maintenance, troubleshooting and repairs. With electric cars the only mechanical things are wheels and cars’ body. All functions are in electronics overlooking electrical motors. Possibly auto mechanics who specialized in gasoline engines have to re-qualify himself to service electric motors. 

  3. AnalyzeThis
    March 8, 2011

    I'm not completely sure I agree with you on this one, Barbara. It's kind of like saying, “I don't trust this calculator to do math for because there's electronics involved, so I'm going to use this abacus because it's proven and if something goes wrong it's easy to troubleshoot and fix.”

    Now I'm not saying your concerns are completely baseless, but I think we should just accept that cars will rely more on electronics as time goes by.

    It's not as if traditional/mechanical parts are flawless — they fail and have issues and quirks as well — they just fail in more obvious ways.

    Besides, if electronics are relied upon to fly commercial airliners… well… I think I'm OK with trusting electronics to keep my car from exploding.

  4. jbond
    March 8, 2011

    There are a handful of problems with increased electronics in cars. First, the more advanced the system is, the more household mechanics can't work on. Not only does this take away from something many people like to do, it can cost families hundreds if not thousands in repairs that they used to be able to do themselves for a fraction of the amount.

    Another problem out there is aging vehicles with electronics issues. It used to be that people could by older vehicles with a few problems and get by without spending too much money that they might not have. Now if you buy an older vehicle it seems like once an electrical component goes bad, another one continues to follow. Some of these failures put the engine in standby mode which means your fuel economy drops drastically. Not too good for the pocketbook when fuel keeps climbing.


  5. Wale Bakare
    March 8, 2011

    Electronics will continue to be major in automotive industry. ECU will control most of vehicle activities now than before.

    As an addition to that article – the more technology vehicle manufactrers integrating to the design the more complex the vehicles are. ECU is an acronym for electronic control unit which comprises of Embedded Software system and Electronics components.

    1 –  Embedded system designers in automotive industries place more emphasis on safety and reliability of the software design in motor industry due to critical scenario of vehicle. Traditionally, C programming language has become the defacto code language in automotive industry. As a result of this, an association called MISRA – Motor Industry Software Reliability Association, a consortium consists group of consultants and project managers provided enhanced C code – rules and guidelines to aid more reliable C coding in motor industry

    2 – How does ECU communicates in vehicle? simple, a protocol called CAN – Conroller Area Network was first developed by ABB CAN provides Read/Write tasks between the microcontroller(embedded system) and other ECUs.

    Problem with Toyota may be mechanical i dont think electronic.  As we are going to have more Electric Vehicles and Hybrid vehicles,  if a car designed in few years back got roughly 20 ECUs,  new of such  to be manufactured from coming year(s) will have more than 20 ECUs . Above all, attention to reliable and safest ECUs now multiple.





  6. Eldredge
    March 8, 2011

    I happen to be in the household mechanic group. Even with the growth in automotive electronics, there are still a lot of things that the home mechanic can do, particularly armed with the proper service manual. And, I will have to admit that the electronics have gotten much better in terms of reliability over the years. It's just that when electrical problems do occur, they can be intermittent in nature, and difficult to locate. I guess all things in moderation applies!

  7. prabhakar_deosthali
    March 9, 2011

    The fact cannot be denied that the sophisticated electronics in the car sometimes plays against you in critical situation. In Mumbai India, a couple of years ago, when the whole of Mumbai was flooded with unprecedented rains one July night, many of luxury car occupants  got trapped in the flooded roads. Since their batteries and engines got submerged in the water they could not open their automated windows and died of suffocation. If there was some kind of manual override for such simple operation then may be those lives would have been saved.

    In todays modern car design we cannot abandon the elctronics altogether but if some safety critical functions such as window opening, braking, are given manual override option then it will take care of the safety critical issues and electronics can play its important role of efficient ignition, climate control, entertainment, abs, navigation and so on..

  8. Mydesign
    March 9, 2011

       Barbara, I would like to share some more details from Microsoft’s plan for automobile industry. During a press event at Hanove, where German technology fair CeBIT had taken place, Microsoft had displayed a Microsoft-centric, fully electric Smart Car. Here, Picture the control center that's built into the Prius, but instead of being built into the dashboard; it resides as an app on your Windows 7 mobile phone, in a cradle on the dash. It provides you with a number of parameters such as the amount of power left in your battery, the expected distance you can travel with the remaining amount of power on your battery, even the distances based on current battery life that are safe to reach, possible to reach, navigation, route and map in their child product Bing map.

       The control also includes the ability to preheat the car from inside your building or home.

  9. prabhakar_deosthali
    March 9, 2011

    Toms, the focus of the discussion here  is whether more and more electronics in a car is making the simple things complex for the ordinary consumer. All those nice features that Microsoft is providing for the smart electric car are fine. The key point is what is the protection in case there is an controller runaway where there is a possibility of the car getting out of control. Or for that matter what is the safety against the electric motor suddenly reversing the direction . If Electronics misbehaves all such things are possible.  The common customer has apprehensions about all these things and these worries are genuine. When it is a mechanical fault it is easy to find it out and easy to repair. But since most of the electronics appears as black box, when there is a fault while the vehicle is on the road, the ordinary driver feels helpless. The auto-makers need to address these issues

  10. Eldredge
    March 9, 2011


       Excellent points. Electronic controls in cars are here to stay – the fact is, as consumers, we like the gadgets, and many of the features (auto door locks, ABS, power windows, security alarms, etc) add elements of safety in the normal days activities. It is oftern the unusual circumstances, like you described, that  expose unanticipated safety issues.


  11. Barbara Jorgensen
    March 9, 2011

    Ok, Ok I know! 🙂 I'm a bit regressive on this matter. You are correct, it's not logical. Electronics have by far made cars better than worse. I'm going to think on this one some more…

  12. tioluwa
    March 9, 2011

    Electronics does have problems, but i don't think these you have mentioned are good enough to run them out (so to speak)

    I can imagine how pieced one can get with such annoying problems, but different design consideration is all it will take to solve such problems.

    I'm guessing the Toyota case would have been the one “life threatning” verdict on auto-electronics, but since it turned out to be mechanical not electrical, we need not vote for less electroncis yet.

    We have benefited from GPS, advanced electronics safety measures, and a new development may soon put a system in cars that determines if a driver is fit to drive, based on the alcohol level in his blood.


    if we weigh this agains the faulty wipers, and side glass and think we know which will win.

  13. Adeniji Kayode
    March 9, 2011

    It is said that the efficiency of machine is less than 100%, how less it may be per time we don,t know but all we know is that we can expect this electronics to perform but not to expect too much from them.

    Can we do without electronics any more?

    Have they not become part of our daily lives?

    Once in a while we may experience disappointment from them but then are they not solving a great deal of tasks for us.

    I feel we may have to look in to more of precautions because they can not be scrapped.

  14. Barbara Jorgensen
    March 9, 2011

    Fair enough. In the grand scheme, electronics have made cars safer, and that's the most important criteria. The other items are minor annoyances. Car makers are focusing on the stuff that counts.

  15. eemom
    March 9, 2011

    I think this is a double edge sword.  Electronics have become an integral part of car designs, yet when they fail, its not a simple re-boot.  I would love to see some kind of self-diagnosing feature when random lights are on.  The car should be able to send to your email where the fault lies.  This would save expensive time and money spent at a dealer.

    Also, I like the idea of a manual override. In emergencies, this could be a life or death feature that I hope will be incorporated in the future.  The point is not to get rid of car electronics but how to advance the technology to make it safer and more interactive.

  16. Ariella
    March 9, 2011

    Barbara, I had the problem with my Toyota. New York also does not allow a car to pass with the code lights on.  But the mechanics don't really know what trigger it.  They tried just resetting it and directed me to drive for a while.  When that didn't fix it, they played trial and error in replacing a type of filter.  Then I had to drive something like 80 miles to finally get everything clear to be able to pass inspection.  They never suggested that there is something fundamentally wrong with the car.  At other times, the light has gone on, only to go off again a few days later. It was all in the timing, though, and because of the inspection, I had to pay the price of the replacement and spend a great deal of time driving to nowhere.

  17. Barbara Jorgensen
    March 9, 2011

    Ariella–exactly! We had a list of about 6 things that could be causing the engine light to stay on, and each of them required a significant investment to repair what “might” be wrong. Some of it was the fuel system; the other half was air and filtration. This was all based on the diagnostic they ran and I know just enough about technology to be a real pain in the neck to the mechanics. It wasn't their fault–Toyota provides most of the software for the diagnostics. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if I didn't have to pay for the diagnostic…


  18. Parser
    March 9, 2011

    It is really not a fault of electronics. Signals displayed on the dashboard are very general in nature. To really know what caused any of them one has to access ECU and dump detailed report. This is almost like a supply chain. With increased complexity of electronic systems in cars there is a need for service training and equipment to go along with it. With tablet computer (iPad style) there is a high possibility of creating a personal diagnostic system based on Bluetooth connectivity with your car computer. There always will be some oddities when no one can figure it out. I had such thing with purely mechanical carburetor in 1986. 

  19. Barbara Jorgensen
    March 9, 2011

    That's a great point about the dashboard lights. They really are more “dumb” electronics while the ECU is the brains of the operation. So really, my issue is with the state–what else is new?–that requires the light to be off before they even look under the hood.

  20. Hardcore
    March 10, 2011

    And if the bulb is broken? 😉

    The real issue with smarter cars, is actually 'security', I'm not talking about some guy jacking your car and driving off with it, but rather the integral electronic systems.

    It appears that some manufacturers have been rather lax in designing vehicle systems that cannot be hacked externally.

    Specifically, imaging driving down the road and your airbag deploys or the breaks do not work; worse you loose speed control or enter into a skid because one wheel has locked.

    There is an interesting research paper floating about , in which some computer graduates hacked the systems of a vehicle, from an external location whilst the vehicle was operational, were not talking about connecting cables to the vehicles computer, but wireless links.

    in the research they proved multiple vulnerabilities in a vehicles networked computer systems and all attacks were external to the vehicle, in some case they could take control of the vehicles subsystems, download new firmware into them whilst the vehicle was on the road. 

    Maybe Intel can start supplying Mcafee for vehicle systems?



  21. Adeniji Kayode
    March 10, 2011


    you really made a wide thinking on that.

    while your specifications are possible, that still means more electronics in our cars.

    And by then we would all  have become “Knight Riders”

    I feel much better with the manual override when neccessary.

  22. tioluwa
    March 10, 2011

    Hacking into cars? that is a real security issue.

    Electronics is an inevitable evolution in all areas of life.

    I agree with Parser, mechanics have no choice but to upgrade their skills to contain some electronics specific to the model of cars they work on or all models if they can.

    Just think how electronics has taken over the medical sector, i don't knwo how hard they are finding it, but i know they have no choice because the benefits are obvious.

    The same goes with cars as well.


    Again as for security, this is just like the social network and mobile issues we've discussed on this forum, i believe a standard for security will come up soon, but till then, i hope no one finds his car turnig right when he means to turn left becuase someone has hacked into it.

  23. elctrnx_lyf
    March 10, 2011

    This is the case with any modern elctonics in the different applications. Electronics are moving to everywhere. The automotives are the one area where the manufacturers trying to add more n more stuff to make it smarter. But this not just adds the intelligence but also the complexity. Even with real stringent requirements on the quality of automotive electronics there is still lot of issues with the electronics.

  24. stochastic excursion
    March 10, 2011

    The generation of automobiles that emphasizes fuel-efficiency and compactness was accompanied by a radically different maintenance use case.  While foreign cars were a boon for the average consumer, the savvy auto enthusiasts and friendly neighborhood garage mechanics were left scratching their heads.  Maintenance personnel have to be trained in the specifics by a manufacturer training program to deal with the intricacies of fuel injection and carburation and microprocessor engine regulation.

    This was status quo for decades and came to dominate the industry.  It works well because it's a closed system.  The Toyota glitch certainly made a splash, but I think a lot of the problem was the extremely proprietary way in which Toyota regarded the protocols, programming and processor design in their vehicles.

    Connecting something with critical real-time functionality to the cloud seems like a bad idea, especially as much of cloud computing functionality is still in the pilot stage.  Internet security is really not such a mission impossible, it's all about keeping critical data and apps in a closed system, and connecting to the net *not* as an administrator, with a system not prone to permissions elevation exploits.

  25. Tim Votapka
    March 10, 2011

    Good coverage Barbara!  Made me miss my '74 Pinto Wagon. Now that was an easy car to fix! And when the door handle button broke, I simply needed a pencil to get the door open. No EE degree necessary!

  26. Barbara Jorgensen
    March 10, 2011

    I love when these discussions take off…

    Security has a whole new meaning, here. Originally, keypad/electronic locks were to keep the car safe from thieves and carjackers…now we need to worry about hackers. Actually, I think we are still a long way away from that.

    On a side note, some of the newer industries in Mass. are having trouble finding workers that can operate the high-tech gear that is now part of manufacturing. I wonder if franchises like Toyota provide training for their dealers. I would imagine they do, but that doesn't help the local mechanic

  27. Mr. Roques
    March 10, 2011

    I had a hard time deciding on this. Whether I trust a more 'mechanic' car or an 'electronic' car. Since my background is in electronics, I'm tempted to go with it but, while, mechanics are old fashioned and less efficient, they are more predictable (and that, somehow, makes them more trustworthy).

  28. Hardcore
    March 11, 2011

    Hi Barbra,

    We are a lot closer to this than many people realize. Researchers (Steve Savage & Yoshi Kohno)actually demonstrated the attack last year on a vehicle, in many cases this was a standard vehicle with on-board computer system, not linked to the internet.

    For some reason it has only just started to become a hot topic recently, with a number of press organizations jumping on it.

    There is a bit more indepth material here: Hacking cars

    As regards repairing cars with modern technology I would guess that it will become similar to the way they repair a computerized washing machine or air conditioner , the 'engineer' will just be a glorified  component remove and replace droid, maybe at sometime in the future even the people that design the systems will not know exactly how they work.

    There must be a break point where the human mind is no longer capable of keeping track of all the details that relate to a given device and its subcomponents.



  29. Jerry S
    March 15, 2011

    As Steve Wozniak (the real brain behind Apple) recently groused, we have gone too far putting electronics into control of everything, for all of these things will eventually fail. Perhaps we will have to start worrying about the the effect of sunspots or EMPs from nuclear accidents or from space causing massive damage to memory and cpus. Even without considering massive failures, critical industrial and military systems were designed with substantial redundancy, which I never see in consumer electronics.

  30. saranyatil
    March 19, 2011

    I would definitely trust electronics more than mechanical since the wear and tear are more. after seeing the google automated car I am clueless how cars will be in the future. such amazing integration created between sensors, some electronic technology with software becoming the back bone. electronics has gone far far..and will go a long way…

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