Software failures in your car

Software failures in your car

Summary: The Toyota Prius is a popular car with people looking to save gas, but recently a software failure has left some owners stranded.

TOPICS: Hardware

The Toyota Prius is a popular car with people looking to save gas, but recently a software failure has left some owners stranded.  The Prius is a hybrid vehicle, meaning that it is powered by both gasoline and electricity.  The gas engine takes its turn when the vehicle needs extra power or when the batteries are too low to power the car.  This requires a sophisticated coordination of the two powerplants and, not surprisingly, it's managed by a computer.  That's the problem.  Here's an excerpt from a Baseline Magazine article on the problem:

In its initial investigation, Toyota said on July 22 it believes that almost half of the 67 complaints received by NHTSA are related to an error in software involving the hybrid electronic control unit. When functioning properly, the control unit allows the vehicle to smoothly shift between its electric motor and gas engine. It is still investigating the remaining cases, but "due to the limited amount of information surrounding the incidents" it was having difficulty determining the exact cause.

Or in words familiar to any software engineer, "it's an intermitent bug."  When the bug kicks in, the car stops.  And unlike the unexpected stops of my youth where the problem was a broken fan belt, you can't use a spare pair of panty hose to fix it. 

Most modern cars and trucks are mobile distributed computing systems.  The number of microprocessors for controlling literally everything is astonding.  Even so, the Prius seems to reach a whole new level of computer control due to it's powerplant.  Again, from the Baseline article:

After slipping into the driver's seat, the owner simply pushes a button on the dash-much as you might press the On button on a computer—and the vehicle powers up. This technology is often referred to as drive-by-wire, as there are no traditional cables, hydraulic lines or linkages connecting the gas pedal to the engine, the brake pedal to the brakes, or the stick shift to the transmission. If the car is in Park or Neutral and you press down on the gas pedal, the engine will not race as it would in a normal car, because the computer determines there is no purpose in doing so.

Not to long ago, I wrote about a virus that had been written to infect Lexus navigation systems.  The vector was the Bluetooth phone system.  There's nothing to indicate that the Prius problem is a virus, but it's an interesting possibility given the sophistication of the computing platform--not to mention a chilling prospect.  The Lexus virus wasn't dangerous because it only affected the GPS system, but I have no doubt that we'll see attacks on more critical systems that result in property damage or even loss of life at some point. 

Topic: Hardware

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  • That's just scary. C'mon.

    Who is doing what about this crap? Or, is the industry going to battle over standards and profits while people get killed?
    • RE: Software failures in your car

      The compact market has traditionally been the home of the hybrid due to its preference for economy over style and utility. Although compact hybrids do cost more than standard compacts <a href=""><font color="black">car parts</font></a>, the eye-popping 70+ miles per gallon many compact hybrids boast has been enough to coax the extra dollars out of consumers pockets.
  • Ah yes

    reminds me of the GM Comdex quote

    As for nefarious things you could do with such cars, I see a bright future for hackers (as in "taxi driver")! Do these cars have electric steering? Oh MAN! . . .
    Roger Ramjet
    • No worse than...

      ... Airbus 380s "Fly By Wire" passenger planes. That's a frightening prospect to me -- (no to minimal hydraulics or "steering")
    • You mean the joke attributed to GM-Comdex?

      The GM joke was amusing, but I still get annoyed that it gets attributed as an actual event nowadays (it's still relevant, just not attributed correctly as a joke).
  • Just wondering

    Should the 30-day exploit code release time frame that's beeen proposed around here apply to vehicle control system?
    Real World
  • Plenty of billion dollar lawsuits

    The auto manufactures better make sure that software flaws don?t cause any deaths. There are plenty of cases where the car companies get sued for a billion dollars or more for the slightest flaw or even when there is questionable flaw.
    • That's easy, George

      There's a EULA attached that absolves them of any consequential damages, etc.

      That's one of the main reasons for using software in a car -- no liability for the manufacturer.
      Yagotta B. Kidding
      • That works with software, but not human lives

        Try explaining EULA to the jury where a kid had his face burned off.
        • RE: That works with software, but not human lives

          I guess that is why Microsoft OS's are not used in systems that human life is dependant on?! Ever read the EULA? There is a clause that indemnifys Microsoft if you die. Want me to find it for you?
          Linux User 147560
          • Actually it is

            The army land warrior helmet mounted computer runs on Windows 2000.
          • Re: army land warrior

            The LW-IC, army land warrior, was not deployed due to issues of reliability. The stryker version was but not the front line version. Sited issues were that the radio tranmissions did not work in every scenario and the system at that time was too bulky. Battery packs lasted only 1 to 2 hours at that time. It was supposed to have been ready for the fiscal year 2004. LW-Stryker is supposed to available for testing in 2006. - ( National Defense Magazine, July 2003 )

            Current status as of 2005, LW and FFW programs have now been merged. As of this date the program is still in the experimental stages. The programs, Land Warrior and Future Force Warrior, were merged to expedite the program.
  • The best part

    [i]This technology is often referred to as drive-by-wire, as there are no traditional cables, hydraulic lines or linkages connecting the gas pedal to the engine, [b]the brake pedal to the brakes,[/b] or the stick shift to the transmission.[/i]

    Emphasis added. If you think that refusing to start is annoying, wait until the next stage where the [b]steering[/b] is also handled by a microcontroller.
    Yagotta B. Kidding
    • Manual backup systems are absolutely needed.

      For steering and brakes at minimum. I can't say for the cars in question, but on previous cars if power steering and brakes fail you can still steer and stop, albeit it takes a lot more muscle than if the car didn't have power assist.

      Also, emergency/parking breaks usually operate by a separate mechanism (cable instead of hydrolic), so you still get some minimal breaking that way if all else fails and you know what you are doing.

      I sincerely hope the auto manufacturers don't overlook this issue.
    • New aircraft

      I think some of the newer air planes are all fly-by-wire. Maybe the 777? Can someone correct me on this if they know for sure?
      • re: New aircraft

        You are correct:

        The flight-control system for the 777 airplane is different from those on other Boeing airplane designs. Rather than have the airplane rely on cables to move the ailerons, elevator, and rudder, Boeing designed the 777 with fly-by-wire technology. As a result, the 777 uses wires to carry electrical signals from the pilot control wheel, column, and pedals to a primary flight computer. (third from last item)
      • Most Aircraft are fly by wire

        From the Boeing 717 to the Airbus A380 double decker, they are all fly by wire, redundant FMS CDU's, weight & balance, gps guidance, auto pilot, blah, blah, blah.

        Most all the biz aircraft are the same. Remember, we're in the 21st century now. Computers rule, except when they screw up...
        • Mechanical devices can screw up more

          Moving parts are a lot more susceptible to wear and tear. Most aviation accidents are due to mechanical failures.

          The lesson here is that any software that runs mission critical real-time applications like breaks and steering should probably run on something like VXWorks and not FreeBSD, Linux, or Windows. It should be purpose built software with nothing extra and not general purpose software. Additionally, it should be completely independent (separated by an air-gap) of the computer system that is exposed by electronic means such as Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.
          • Maybe

            But mechanical devices tend to be simpler, more specialized, and thus easier to diagnose (kind of following the UNIX philosophy, rather than the MS-Windows philosophy).

            I've had an ongoing problem with the onboard computer in my car (quite literally a black box); Every once in a while, the automatic transmission stops working until the car is restarted (ie. "rebooted"). We've had it replaced twice, so I don't believe that the computer is the problem per se, but I'm quite sure that a simple mechanical failure would have been diagnosed and repaired long ago.

            I have a Gabe Martin cartoon from about 10 years ago hanging in my office. The caption is "What if car problems were fixed in the same way as computer problems?" and shows a mechanic suggesting to his customer that the next time the problem crops up he should simply restart the car and it's likely to go away. I don't think Mr. Martin realized at the time that the cartoon would prove prophetic.
            John L. Ries
          • I wish I could fix my car the same way I fix my computer

            First of all, you're comparing apples and oranges when talking about cars and computers.

            If I could fix my car by sticking in a ghost image recovery DVD and make it run like new, I'd be a very happy camper. If the price of cars went down while my horse power doubled every two years, I'd be a very happy camper.

            If software was designed properly with the same scrutiny has hardware, it would be orders of magnitude more reliable than mechanical parts. Newer planes are designed using fly-by-wire with this very philosophy.