Recall in perspective: What can possibly go wrong….again..

One in a million.

My boss told me “so that means your design will defiantly kill two people per year!”.

That was 20 years ago, when I was a fresh faced engineering graduate in my first job at a global car maker. I was designing bits of engine management system, and as ever I had gone through every type of possible failure and worked out how well it was catered for. But one very obscure scenario involved the car stalling on a hypothetical level crossing near a strong radio transmitter, a bit tenuous but it is a situation that could happen, I had gone through the figures and worked out that it was a million to one chance that the engine would not restart, resulting in something bad involving a train and sudden localised distortion to the car (ok, a crash).

Danger being recognized

I thought that this was a remote chance, but my then boss pointed out that the systems would be put on about 2 million cars per year in Europe, hence his terminal conclusion.

I redesigned it. No one had to die.

But even so, I am sure there could be even more obscure situations I had never even thought of, I probably could have spent years going through more and more complex scenarios, but the the car would never have been made. So we have to draw the line somewhere.

How common are uncommon faults?

So its with a great deal of sympathy that I read about Toyota’s sticky pedal problem, millions of cars work fine, yet a handful of freaks necessitate a total recall. You just cant take chances, even if most of the cars are absolutely fine.

Toyota are no worse than Ford, Mercedes and all the rest, all volume products suffer from occasional problems, largely due to the scale of production and of course because we want them cheap, and that’s not going to change any time soon.

When an industry has to make very complicated machines, that are used by the general public, and have to endure a vast array of harsh environments, things are going to be difficult. And when this problem is massively compounded by having to make the car as cheap as possible, something has to give.

Times this set of problems by the millions of cars made every year and the law of averages is definitely not on the side of car makers.

If you think about it, the mere fact that when something does go wrong it makes the headlines tells us something about the utterly fantastic job that all these companies usually do.

If the average Joe knew anything of the vast amount of sheer hard work that goes into creating cheap, economical, useful and reliable cars they would bow down in reverence, and those that fancy their chances at suing for spurious accidents would hang their head in shame.

But hardly anyone knows about all that fantastic engineering work, it doesn’t make sexy TV programs, it’s not vacuous and glamorous enough to make it into the glossies. So every one just accepts that every machine should work perfectly no matter what, and are utterly surprised on the very rare occasion that it doesn’t.

Cars are amazing.

Here’s a challenge for you; think of a machine that has to work in heavy rain, baking sun, snow, ice, deserts, tarmac, cobble stones, at temperatures between -40 to +50 C, last over a decade whilst being shaken, accelerated, decelerated by novice users in a crowded and complex environment.

There are no other machines, just motor vehicles, which have to contend with all this.

But it doesn’t stop there, the engine is retuned every combustion cycle, hundreds of times each second. The suspension analyses the road and adapts to suit, the auto gearbox monitors the drivers ‘style’ and changes the way it works to please them. The brakes check wheel speed thousands of times a second and deduce when a tyre is about to skid and relieve brake pressure just before it happens.

Components have to operate faultlessly for millions of cycles, if an engine or drive-line fault develops then the systems must identify it, adjust the mode of operation to minimise risk and alert the driver, just like having an expert mechanic on board.

In addition the car has to be comfy, economical, perform well, have a really good sound system and be near silent in operation.

Not even the Space Shuttle has to contend with this level of sophistication.

And here is the kicker; as well as coping with all that, it also has to perform special functions in a crash. We have multiple air bags, who’s operation is tuned to the ‘type’ of crash detected, we have automatic engine cut, hazard indication, seatbelt pre-tensioning and some cars even ring for help.

Name me one other machine that has to detect, reliably, when it is about to be destroyed and then deploy safety mechanisms during the actual process of destruction. You’ll struggle with that one.

Now this feat of engineering would be amazing even with an unlimited budget, but the fact is that cars are made as cheaply as possible, which just take the achievement from amazing to utterly astonishing.

Please take a few moments to look at your own car, and marvel. And if one part goes wrong, be sympathetic to the scale of the problem engineers face.

Media hype

During this recall, the media could have played a very useful role and helped society, I say ‘could have’ because what they actually did was the complete opposite.

What they could have done is reported actual news, facts presented objectively such as ‘a small numbers of cars may have a fault causing the pedal to be stiff’. That is a fact, it gets the info over simply and effectively, you know what is being said. Simple.

They could have gone further and said something like ‘if your pedal feels stiff visit your dealer, but first check the floor mat hasn’t got stuck under the pedal’. That would be helpful.

But they didn’t do that.

No, what actually got reported was ‘mum of five in death plunge tragedy’ and ‘is your car a ticking time bomb of doom?’. Stupid, dramatised gossip that conveys absolutely no useful information.

But of course this scare mongering helps to boost sales of the current media bilge, so expect more useless crap in the future about every important storey.

And this is a real problem, not only because it leaves us all badly informed and scared, but because the car companies now know that being honest and open has become the wrong thing to do.

All media has a responsibility, and its time they faced up to it.

People are getting to be useless.

And this brings me to a very important point; cars are so reliable these days that people are totally unable to cope with a simple problem; I would have thought that if the pedal stays down then either put your toe under it and pull it up or drop it in neutral, park up and switch off. Easy, but most people have lost the ability to cope with any sort of problem, and that is scary.

I say scary because we depend more an more on technology, cars, electricity supply, computers, the internet, mobile phones, the list goes on. And for the most part the technology serves us amazingly well, but like all things it can fail.

I remember in the 70’s there were power cuts, no problem; the lights went out so we lit candles, life goes on. We communicated by actually talking to people, we were entertained by actually doing things, we worked by going out and making physical things.

But now, oh dear, if the power fails we seem to be doomed to sitting in a freezing dark house unable to phone a friend or do any work on the computer. ‘Doomed I say, doomed, captain’ (although that phrase probably wont mean a thing to younger readers).

Now don’t get me wrong, I am a great fan of technology. As an engineer I work on car technology that won’t see the glowing lights of a showroom for maybe seven years, as a writer I would be lost without the word processor and its fantastic ability to correct my abysmal spelling. Oh yes ineedy I just cant get enough of the techy stuff.

What I am scared of is the way people are loosing the ability to do things for themselves. To even bother trying to solve problems seems to great a challenge, the mind is being numbed and switched off, its like intentionally loosing the ability to walk just because you can afford a wheel chair.

The first though now seems to be ‘who should I call about this problem’, and not what it should be ‘what can I do to solve this problem’.

People have to be more proactive, just like we used to be, and much less reactive and just plain pathetic.

Mind you, I suppose if there were to be a mass technology failure and every useless person was, well, useless, then maybe Engineers will rise as a united force like a waking giant and take over the world. So its not all bad. 😉

Technology marches on.

Here is an interesting observation: most drivers don’t want to be there.

Unlike enthusiasts, such as myself, who really get a deep enjoyment and fulfilment from driving, in the mass market most car owners don’t actually like driving at all, it’s just become a necessity of modern life. That’s why so many of them don’t pay attention and would rather chat on the phone, listen to the radio or just stare into the distance like a slack jawed zombie.

Cars are a very strange phenomenon in that respect, where else would you find a large, heavy and complex piece of machinery operated by anyone who wants one? It wouldn’t happen with lathes, welding kit or submarines, but with cars we just accept it.

And because of the non-professional nature of the vast majority of car owners, technology is being developed to meet their needs. That is; making the car make most of the decisions.

We are already seeing Volvos with ‘collision avoidance’ brakes which do an emergency stop before you drive up the arse of the car in front. Many cars have adaptive cruise control using radar sensors to move with the flow of traffic, some cars have lane assistance which nudge the steering to keep the car between the two white lines. And fully autonomous cars are in development, you just get in, tell it where to go and it drives you there.

To many this is automotive heaven, just like having a chauffeur, and takes the irritating burden of ‘having to do some driving’ out of a journey completely. Plus there are safety advantages which make a very compelling argument, the fact is that nearly all accidents are caused by the driver doing something really dumb, so by taking the driver out of the system lives would be saved. And that argument alone is powerful enough to kill the ‘drivers car’ stone dead, no arguments, it is simply infeasible to argue that autonomous cars should not be compulsory just because we want to have a little bit of fun.

But to enthusiasts this is automotive hell, no control, no involvement, no enjoyment, nothing.

And it also take a lot of skill and judgement away too, what if I want to drive on the left of my lane to get a good view past the truck I am about to overtake? Will the lane control system let me? What if I need to gently nudge my driveway gate open because its blown shut? Will the collision avoidance system let me?

But what drives technological development is consumer demand, so if we want cars to be ‘drivers cars’, totally under our command, then we have to make our voice heard. Not only that but the voice must have a strong and sound argument, and it has to be heard right now.


What’s the greatest challenge facing car design? Meeting carbon emissions targets is a damn good one, as is crash safety. But by far the biggest problem facing car design is complexity, and its a problem that is being hidden.

With all the highly sophisticated systems on board, such as engine control, ABS, crash avoidance, gearbox tuning and even sat-nav, knowing exactly how each part will react to the behaviour of another part has been almost impossible.

But modern cars don’t just have a set of independent systems, they are linked together. This has provided some amazing cross-function capability, such as traction control where wheel slip is detected by the ABS system and the engine system reduced power to suit, and it has given us seamless automatic gear shifts where the gearbox talks to the engine to ensure the speed and power are matched perfectly as a gear is changed.

More importantly it has enabled much greater safety, for example if the brakes fail then the electronic hand brake system can lend a hand and the engine and gearbox can work together to increase engine braking.

It can even compensate for driver incompetence; some people panic in an emergency and press both pedals to the floor, modern cars detect this and simple apply the brakes and return the engine to idle. This simple step has saved lives.

Now, the concepts of integrated safety and functionality are simple to understand, the arguments for and against them are again fairly simple. Even politicians can understand them.

But the devil is in the detail, and when you get down to the actual computer code it gets mind bogglingly complicated.

I will give you a relatively simple example. In order to reliably detect if the accelerator pedal sensor has failed, the pedal has at least two independent circuits, the signals are compared to see if they agree, that way if a wire is broken then the system will detect it and the engine can be safely returned to idle. But it has to do more; what if there is a mechanical failure such as a broken return spring? Well, the signal is also analysed for movement so that if it stays inexactly the same position for too long then there is a fair chance its stuck. But how long is ‘too long’?

This is where it gets tricky. The signal is also compared to other signals, such as the brake pedal as mentioned above. But even if both brake and accelerator are applied at the same time, what if the fault is not in the accelerator pedal, nor in the driver panicking, but in the brake pedal sensor? This could lead to a tragic loss of power when the driver needs to accelerate out of danger, such as on a railway crossing.

So one layer of complexity involves where do you set the limits, how much analysis do you do and how many other systems do you compare with?

But there is more complexity, oh yes, much more. What if the various systems are not entirely in tune with each other? For instance when braking, as the speed drops the gearbox changes down and requests the engine speed to rise to match, so the throttle is opened. Usually the various signals are perfectly matched and this works seamlessly, but what if the signal from the gearbox results in a momentary surge of power from the engine?

So clearly the teams developing and tuning the brakes, gearbox and engine have to work together to ensure that under every different level of braking and speed combination, everything matches up. And that is a lot of work.

However, it gets more complicated. Many companies buy in certain systems, maybe the ABS from Bosch, the gearbox from GM, possibly even the engine might come from another company, or another division in a different country. And even within those teams, parts of the computer control code may be outsourced to other divisions or companies, bringing another layer of remoteness to the design.

See where this is leading? Well, to greater complexity and less understanding of what every part has in it.

That is just one example of one system interaction, but there are many more, and each system may have further unintended interaction too. A classic on is with ‘stability control’ systems, when accelerating out of a corner a driven wheel might start to loose traction, so the traction control system will apply the brake calliper on that wheel to keep it under control. This causes the car to veer off course slightly so the stability control applies the brake calliper on the other side to balance it out. Net result is you end up accelerating with the brakes on!

Now modern cars are introducing collision avoidance, lane control and other complex systems which all have to work in harmony with all the other systems in all the infinite combinations of circumstance.

I believe that it is now impossible to accurately asses how such a car will react in all conditions.

This is true not only for cars, but in many of the systems we rely on today, from automatic number plate recognition and speeding fines, military automatic targeting and smart weapons, to the DNA database and even the way we use the internet.

The potential for technology to assist is immense, but it has to be understood that we have now lost control of every detail. So how far do we let the machines dictate to us, and how much override can we allow to fallible humans?

The answer to this will dictate the future of society and quite possibly our fate as a species.

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