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Old 16th June 2004, 13:32   #1
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Bedevilled by bugs on the road
By James Mackintosh
Published: June 16 2004 5:00 | Last Updated: June 16 2004 5:00


Easing into the soft leather of the £46,000 BMW 7-Series saloon's driving seat, there was not much to link it to the £13,000 CitroŽn Xsara Picasso. The practical plastic of the French family car cannot be compared to the expensive, wood-and-metal dashboard of the BMW, which has an engine almost twice as powerful.

But after just 10 minutes of driving the BMW's large screen began to flash with a red warning sign and it rapidly became clear that the two cars share a common problem: their electronics, or at least the software that controls them. Both, despite being brand new, failed within a few hours of being delivered for a test drive.

Neither difficulty was life-threatening - the CitroŽn's digital speedometer stuck at motorway speed even when the car was at a standstill, while the BMW's electronic suspension control packed up. But they show the trouble car companies, more used to fixing mechanical glitches, are having in getting to grips with software.

Thierry Morin, chairman and chief executive of Valeo, the parts supplier, says: "The electronics in the car bring six or seven times more faults than normal mechanical parts.
"You have something native in electronics: it is called a bug. The more pure electronic content that is in a car the more bugs there will be."

The problems have been most noticeable in the luxury cars that were the first to adopt complex electronics. Software controls are now used for everything from tuning the radio to controlling the fuel injection; and new technologies such as assisted parking and emergency braking also rely on advanced computing.

There is a clear danger to the brand image of luxury cars from their failure to cope with the change from mechanics to "mechatronics", the overlap between mechanics and electronics. Mercedes-Benz has already suffered a serious blow to its reputation for reliability after difficulties with its electronics caused an unusually high number of breakdowns, and other manufacturers are struggling to fix software bugs.
Bernd Pischetsrieder, chief executive of Volkswagen, says: "If you have a problem with your Volkswagen the likelihood that it was a software problem is very high. Software technology is not something that we as car manufacturers feel comfortable with."

The problem is threefold. First, the technology has not yet settled down. Manufacturers have had more than 100 years to get engines running smoothly, but only a few years to get to grips with the rapid growth of electronics in the car.
DaimlerChrysler, owner of Mercedes, estimates that in the past 35 years the software in a car has risen from an easily manageable 100 lines of code to 1m, and could hit 100m by 2010.

Second, carmakers failed to build up expertise in electronics and software development. The "car guys" in charge - many, including Mr Pischetsrieder, trained in mechanical engineering - overlooked the differences between software development, which typically takes less than 18 months from concept to launch, and vehicle development, which takes at least four years.

The supplier of each component was expected to build in the appropriate software, while an external system integrator typically had the job of ensuring they all worked correctly together.

Third, probably as a result of their lack of expertise, the carmakers allowed the networks linking the separate components to get too complex, making them impossible to test properly.

Harbans Dass, European sales and marketing director for the automotive division of Motorola, says this proliferation of different systems for different functions causes the biggest difficulties.

"The problems arose because when we connected all these systems together they were very complicated - as complicated as an aircraft," he says.

He calculates that a BMW 5-Series saloon has 500m permutations in the entertainment and information unit alone, making it impossible to test each combination. The 7-Series, which probably has more electronics than any car on the market, comes with 78 electronic control units, or computers - meaning it has to have a highly complex network to allow them to communicate.

The effect has been to bring to life the long-standing joke about the fight between General Motors and Microsoft. The tale is that Bill Gates compared the development speed of the computer industry to carmaking, saying: "If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon." GM's response: "Yes, but would you want your car to crash twice a day?" The situation is not this bad, but drivers who find they have to reboot their satellite navigation or speedometer may well compare the reliability with Microsoft's Windows.
Michael Ganal, board member in charge of sales and marketing at BMW, says there is another problem for carmakers: as electronics and software become more important, suppliers control more of the vehicle.

"Ten years ago you bought ABS [brakes] and then you bought fuel injection and ended up with electronic islands in the car," he says. "Then you entered into system integration and you discovered that you did not control your car any more."
In an attempt to deal with all the issues, the manufacturers are frantically recruiting software engineers and banding together to create common standards.

BMW last year took on 300 new people in research and development, and this year is aiming to take on up to 500, mainly electronic and electrical engineers. It has also set up a new division, Car IT, to look at the future of computing in cars, and Mr Ganal accepts that improving control over electronics is "for BMW one of the most challenging tasks".
Mercedes, BMW's arch-rival, has adopted a more cautious approach to development to improve the dependability of its cars.

Hans-Joachim SchŲpf, executive vice-president of development and engineering at Mercedes, says the company has stopped software development on new models earlier, to give more time for testing. "In the past the higher [electronic] content led to more breakdowns," he says. "But now we do have the means and the measures within our plans to prevent that."

The carmakers are also banding together to set standards for motor industry software, with the German manufacturers, since joined by Ford, PSA Peugeot CitroŽn and Toyota, setting up AutoSAR. They hope that standard software platforms will allow them to focus resources on reliability.
According to AutoSAR, "contemporary automotive electronic and electrical architecture has reached a level of complexity which requires a technological breakthrough in order to manage it satisfactorily and fulfil the heightened passenger and legal requirements."

Even before that breakthrough, there are already signs of progress. Mercedes improved dramatically in this year's benchmark study of quality in the US, carried out by J.D. Power, the consultants. It found that after 90 days of ownership the number of problems per 100 cars dropped from a high of 132 last year to 106 this year, moving the brand back into the top 10 for reliability.

Mr Dass - who estimates that 65 per cent of development effort now goes into software - says software has improved "immensely" over the past two years.
There is some evidence for this: electrical problems are the single biggest cause of complaint among drivers of five-year old cars surveyed by Consumer Reports, the US consumer group, but only the third-biggest for six-month old vehicles. But carmakers should not take comfort from this changeover; when the failures of electronic gadgets such as power sunroofs and CD players are added to the electrical problems, they remain by far the main source of complaint.


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Old 16th June 2004, 18:14   #2
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This reminds me of the Top Gear S600 video. lol
Jeremy really got pissed off with the voice activated programme.

And then there was the Nissan Micra which could be programmed to wish you a happy birthday.

Electronics are good, but there's a limit to it.

Regards...
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Old 16th June 2004, 21:22   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by [b
Quote[/b] (Shan2nu @ June 16 2004,16:44)]Electronics are good, but there's a limit to it.
Absolutely!

the only electronics i wish to have in my car are fuel management (that too a simple one)

and to control the passenger side rearview mirror!

cya
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Old 17th June 2004, 14:02   #4
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Ajmat, a refreshingly intelligent article on a long-standing issue within the automotive industry.

Mercs and Beemers have recently come into the news for their sudden unreliability, and it is all down to electronics. I read about and heard first-hand instances of many BMW 7 series breaking down without any prior warning. One chap was cruising on the Mass-Pike (East coast toll way) and the car died on him all of a sudden. There was another fellow student who had his left mirror hit by a cyclist, and the engine totally cut off. Really terrifying that you buy a $100,000 car and it doesnt offer you half the reliability of a $10,000 Honda Civic. My C-Class itself has had one electronic glitch within the first year of ownership...not "life threatening" at all, but a problem nevertheless.

IMHO, a lot of the latest gizmos are totally unnecessary and 90% of the users dont even get to ever using them in the life span of their automobiles. But then, manufacturers want to prove a point and out-do each other. Each wants to portray itself as a tech-friendly company which churns out the most modern of product lines.

I remember reading about some software guru's opinion, and he said that there is still not a single modern software that is without glitches/bugs. If it happens on my laptop, I'll just reboot. What if it affects the braking system of my car? I dont like overtly complicated cars especially the drive-by-wire types. Remember that the more complicated stuff you have in your car....the more your chances of it breaking down.

But the most stupid is the chap who buys a highly complex fibre-optic laden S-Class...then hands it over to Dilip Chabbria for stretching and eventually modifying the electronics. Electronics which even Mercedes Benz themselves have yet not understood inside out.

10 times out of 10, I will choose a simple and uncluttered W126 S Class over a complicated W140...and the even more complex W220 current-gen S Class.

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Old 17th June 2004, 15:08   #5
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Again ill be the odd one out,
While certainly electronic problems are high, And i know that too well now with disasters in the last few days but im still for it,
I love the fact that when i get out of my car the steering goes up with the seat goin back to make my entry and exit easy, love the fact that with a touch of a button i get the exact seat position, and that my cluster has most info i need, and DVD/MP3 & phone in one unit in the centre with 4 zone a/c's and self closing doors and the fact that even in the back in have power seats with power lumbar adjuster, love those ventilators in my seat and everything else, All i am against is electronics in the engine bay, hate being hung up on such expensive cars,

But the W220 GTO is reliable like a military tank Maybe thats cuz its out in the market for 4+ years,
And the BMW iDrive you know why it sux? cause MS made it
MB shud use Apple for something reliable but i hear the next gen S will have the iDrive too
And i cant wait wow MB's version of Idrive will definately beat the BMW's

And to tease ya all

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Old 17th June 2004, 15:27   #6
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That got me thinking - what gadgets would I really want in a car - my viewpoint

1: electric windows - V usefull in the front, especially when you need to lower the passenger window to see if traffic is clear when pulling out of a junction on a rainy day. Also like the one touch stuff - sod rear passenger windows

2: Central locking - quick entry exit etc.

3: electric seats - naah - only I drive and whats the big deal in pulling a few levers and moving your butt accordingly

4: electric mirrors - yes - great when reversing

5: Sunroof - reducees headroom - but great when you jump into a hot car and need to get the heat out

6: Climate control - nice - not essential

7: Sat Nav - I know where i am going normally

8: ABS - essential - shame vtec does not have it

9: Airbag - essential

10: ASD, SBC - mayber if we had autobahns etc might come into play but have these gadgets really save any lives, still plenty of w126s out there that never crashed !

11: Rain sensor wipers - whats wrong with flicking your fingers

12: Cruise control - pointless over here

13: auto lights on etc - if you do not know when to switch oyur lights on well maybe you are a liability

14: Trip computer - useful but how often do you need those stats

15: Service computer - heck - any w126 ran better based on fixed intervals and tlc as opposed to the w220 ordered to go for a service by computer

16: Keyless go - nice - but I don't mind pressing a remote button also


Theres plenty more to discuss !!!! End of the day, we pay more for in terms of inconvenience and money for the conveniences offered. These gadgets end up reducing a cars life. In Malaysia, you see plenty of old w126's but very few BMW equivalents
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Old 17th June 2004, 15:55   #7
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Ajmat here's how id put it for a few points i dont really agree :

Electric seats : well i do find it better to just sit at easy and adjust it and esp. with memory just have your button and love the way the mirrors, steering and seat comes to your position

Sunroof : how does it reduce headroom? seen an S without a roof ajmat has similar dimensions

Cruise control : why do you think its pointless? I use it daily and love it

Trip computer : Quite often

KEyless go : what do you mean pressing a remote button? cause Keyless go has the button on the Gear shifter!

Thats just my view point no offence
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Old 17th June 2004, 16:00   #8
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Of what is essential:

1. Power windows
2. Central Locking (But I get autocop in all my cars anyways)
3. Power Steering
4. ABS (Especially with the kind of power cars are putting out now)
5. Traction Control
6. Airbags
7. Power mirrors
8. ECM (Whose only responsibility is maintaining efficient combustion and of course, the check engine light)

A really loaded audio system and a sun-roof would be great.

Everything else is hog-wash. Its just a luxury car maker's way of justifying the high price ( "But Dahling my friend has it in her Accord...how come your Mercedes doesnt offer too much more!!" ).

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Old 17th June 2004, 16:45   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by [b
Quote[/b] (S350L-E240 @ June 17 2004,14:25)]Ajmat here's how id put it for a few points i dont really agree :

Electric seats : well i do find it better to just sit at easy and adjust it and esp. with memory just have your button and love the way the mirrors, steering and seat comes to your position


AM: I agree- is nice to watch and see but if you are the only driver/ main driver - whats the point. I


Sunroof : how does it reduce headroom? seen an S without a roof ajmat has similar dimensions

AM: Not so much an S class, more apparent in smaller cars


Cruise control : why do you think its pointless? I use it daily and love it

AM: Try using it in Bangalore !!!!
Hey ! no offense at all, we have our own perspectives - let me answer some of points - prefixed AM
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Old 18th June 2004, 03:03   #10
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Add a radar detector to that list - works like a charm, everytime ! *
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Old 18th June 2004, 03:59   #11
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loved ur comments ajmat
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Old 18th June 2004, 06:59   #12
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like mentioned in the first post of this thread .. electronics really are evovling, the pace of developments in the electronic frontier has been, we have to agree "frantic" obviously it will take some time to reach a threshold where we can control electronic malfunctions.
Regarding the number of gizmos in a car, well lets put it this way ,, not everyone buys a car for its driving and handling finnese, the automobile has been with us for a while now and we have accepted it as something normal so owning one isnt a "big deal" , how do manufacturers make their toys more desirable? ADD Gizmos.. gone are the times where they could brag that their engine starts with a single crank and that our car is more mechanically bullet proof than yours .. nearly all cars these days easily achieve that criteria
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Old 1st July 2004, 10:52   #13
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iam with electronic stuff but every thing to comfort me and if extra also not a prob but only thing is it should not fail. i would like no bugs in s/w, if *present then say no to that feature. that should be done at car maker level to make sure it is prob free.

there should be always backup for these electronics mechanically, and this is must.

this is my view.



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Old 1st July 2004, 11:31   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by [b
Quote[/b] ]there should be always backup for these electronics mechanically, and this is must.
This is impossible and unfeasible in most cases. Cost, weight, space and an impossible design are just some factors that spring to mind.

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Old 1st July 2004, 14:27   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by [b
Quote[/b] ]This is impossible and unfeasible in most cases. Cost, weight, space and an impossible design are just some factors that spring to mind.
i accept the facts but they invest so much on R&D so they can think of these too. there is a drastic change in technology day to day so i think it will be possible as the time goes, might be not in short span but in long term. if u take a flight it has nearly 3backup for many critical things so i hope it will happen to these cars too.
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