March 25, 2013

Do We Need Mobile Communication - For Our Cars?

You know how people leave their windshield wipers sticking up when they park and it's snowing or sleeting? It may look silly but that way the wipers don't get frozen onto the glass, and everything is easier to clear off when you return.

Well, doing that is impossible in my car. The wipers are tucked away under an overhang of the hood. It gives a neater look. On the other hand, you can't make them stick up. I tried to trick it by turning the car key in mid-swipe, hoping to stop the wipers while they're in the upright position. But the system was smarter than the owner: a small processor detects the wipers' position and parks them neatly, quite independently of when you take away nominal power.

I really don't appreciate it when my possessions try to outsmart me.

Don't get me wrong: I like stop/start technology. I like the variable timing technology that regulates the fuel injection for optimum efficiency at any speed. Those are just two examples of features for which you need a processor, that is, a small computer, in your car. In those cases, a computer can do much better than I, and I am happy to relinquish control.

Photo Wikiuser100000

Until it's time for a repair. The illumination of the Check Engine light is a blunt reminder that when you want to ask what's wrong with a contemporary car engine, you need to speak UNIX not physics. I resent that. I like being able to crawl in and touch this and wiggle that and being able (sometimes) to fix the problem myself, on the spot, without much to-do and very little expense.

Instead, I have to pay a garage around $100 just to ask the car what it thinks might be wrong. I don't begrudge my mechanic the income. I just like to tinker: I used to take great pleasure in cleaning and subtly adjusting the spark plugs, back when there were such things as spark plugs.

Apparently, in-car computing can account for up to half the price of the car. Whoa! That's super-expensive processing power. So far, the there are two classes of computers in your car: for driving operation, and for entertainment. (That last bit includes GPS and such, which is not, strictly speaking, necessary for the operation of a car).

The reason that car computing is so expensive is that it all has to comply with near-military specifications. Not that it has to be radiation-hard, but just the temperature swings experienced by a car can mean the death of the semiconductor elements that make up regular consumer-class electronics. Ever tried leaving your cellphone on a hot dashboard? No? There's a reason for that.

An increasing portion of the entertainment computing is connected to the greater worldwide network, which is great if your real life is so devoid of interest that you have to supplement it with incessant input from the cloud.

But now apparently the automotive part of the computing is about to plug into that same cloud as well. This puts a whole new spin on the concept "mobile communication". Why is this necessary? So you car can engage in some online gaming with its buddies while you're at work? It could become the suburban version of Marvin, the depressed robot from the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Imagine what it would say (in a deeply morose voice): "Here I am, brain the size of a planet, and they use me for going to the mall."

And of course, if you can reach out into the cloud, the cloud can reach in.

Already, carmakers are steeling themselves for cyber attacks on cars. Wow. So now, a saboteur doesn't disable the brakes by cutting the brake cable, but by cutting the optic fiber cable that connects the "brake" pedal to the processor that tells the subprocessor to direct the actuators to move the brake pads onto the disc. The hand brake will soon be a finger brake: you push a button to engage it.

I find it unsettling. While the car is in motion, a driver should not be distracted, nor should her car. Let the mechanics hook up that special-configuration ethernet cable at the garage to query the vehicle's systems. I would strongly prefer that no-one be able to talk to my car while it's busy carrying me down the road; I want no WiFi for it.



  1. I had no idea the cost of all the electronics was that high, but then I had forgotten about the cost of the environmental hardening, which has to exceed the fairly demanding -5C to 55C range we have to design to in telecom. And automotive electronics don't get to use fan trays for cooling.

    And I'm also reminded of the Toyota accelerator debacle of a few years back. I don't think it was ever fully resolved, but I'd still rather have a mechanical linkage there than a bunch of software routines...


    1. Probably the "half the price of the car" cost of electronics applies only to the latest high-end luxury segment. But yes, all cars are moving that way. Call me old fashioned, but that drive-by-wire feeling makes me uncomfortable.


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