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Computers in cars - ‘The blue screen of death’

In 1982 my life changed forever. It was twenty-eight years ago that I started my residency after six long years at medical school. But 1982 was also the year that I was first introduced to home computing and a new lifestyle of spending long hours in my study in front of a computer screen.

01 Aug 2010

with Doctor Clive Fraser

 

In 1982 my life changed forever.

It was twenty-eight years ago that I started my residency after six long years at medical school.

But 1982 was also the year that I was first introduced to home computing and a new lifestyle of spending long hours in my study in front of a computer screen.

A colleague was the first to buy one of those over-grown calculators that plugged into the television.

It was made by my name-sake, Clive Sinclair, and it was called the ZX Spectrum.

I watched in awe as that tiny machine played a formidable game of Scrabble against me, and just like the Chess program we all know who (or what) won.

But I never expected that within a few short years that computers would have invaded the automotive world.

Whilst we’re all very thankful for ABS, stability and traction control which undoubtedly save lives, we also don’t mind climate controlled air conditioning, Bluetooth and iPod connectivity which make our trips just that bit more comfortable.

None of these devices would function without micro-processor control.

On the performance front ignition and fuel injection are all controlled by silicone circuitry and cars are arguably more reliable and fuel efficient than ever because of computer power.

This all sounds great until something goes wrong as my partner discovered a few weeks ago.

At 100 km/h my wife’s Volvo XC90 covers a distance of 28 metres every second.

Suddenly, and without any warning whatsoever, a car that hadn’t missed a beat in 99,000 kilometres decided to have a computer mal-function on a busy stretch of the Bruce Highway.

For reasons known only unto itself there was a loud bang that came from the engine bay which in retrospect probably had something to do with the transmission.

The dashboard went completely dead with no instruments, no indicators and no hazard warning lights.

Faced with what seemed like a catastrophic failure my terrified partner attempted to maintain control of the vehicle whose engine had also died.

Only problem with this was that with no engine there was no power assistance for the steering or the brakes.

With an impatient semi-trailer driver bearing down from behind my partner was lucky to get off the road in one piece.

Fortunately, the incident occurred in the day-time as this all would have occurred in pitch blackness at night as the head-lights also switch off in the automotive equivalent of the blue screen of death.

Earlier in the day the instrument cluster had behaved erratically, but other than that the breakdown was as unpredictable as a sub-arachnoid haemorrhage.

I rescued the vehicle from the road-side and had my first experience of driving a car in limp-home mode.

All of the lights miraculously came back on (they couldn’t be switched off) and all forward operation was in third gear only

I gingerly took my out of warranty car back to a local garage and saw for the first time that there wasn’t enough power in third gear to get over a speed-bump in their car park.

A computer analysis showed faults in every electronic system in the vehicle - engine management, ABS, cruise control and even the air conditioning.

I rang three Volvo dealers for advice, none of whom rang me back until I called Volvo customer care.  They then advised me that they’d never heard of such a problem.

At that point I decided to make the micro-chip my friend again and I sought some help from Google.

Within nano-seconds I’d read dozens of accounts from other XC90 owners in the US who reported exactly the same problem as mine.

Most of the drivers were female at the time of the failure which I’m sure reflected the XC90 driver demographic rather than any issue related to the operation of the vehicle.

It would cost $2,500 plus labour to replace the car’s engine management unit with no guarantee that some other equally expensive electronic component might not also be at fault.

Calculating the cost of repairs was a purely intellectual exercise though as my partner had completely lost all faith in the vehicle and refused to let anyone she felt any responsibility for drive in it.

So I’m now more urgently looking for a replacement though a vehicle without any electronics may be hard to find.

 

Multiplex wiring

Two cables (data busses) – one for data and one for power connect components and computerized control modules.  Commands travel along the cables and only specific modules respond to the instructions.

For: Fewer cables and connections improves reliability, less weight, more compact, communication between components aids trouble-shooting.

Against: Catastrophic failure a possibility with integrated components, no back-up in the event of a problem.

 

Safe driving,

Doctor Clive Fraser

doctorclivefraser@hotmail.com.


Published: 01 Aug 2010