Updated: Chances are you've already heard about the problems that Toyota Prius owners have been having with their hybrid cars. As cars get more complex, and computers control more of the vital systems, are problems like this the future of motoring?
There's an old joke about how if Microsoft made cars, they'd crash twice a day for no reason. Ha ha ha ha ... but as we integrate more hardware and software controls into vehicles, it's likely that software issues will become more common-place.
Take the Prius. This vehicle seems to have both a braking issue and some problem that causes the vehicle to accelerate unintentionally. Updated 2/5/10: Toyota's president apologized Friday for the carmaker's massive global recalls, stopping short of a Prius recall.
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak spoke out about this problem the other day:
"I don't get upset and teed off at things in life, except computers that don't work right ... Toyota has this accelerator problem we've all heard about. Well, I have many models of Prius that got recalled, but I have a new model that didn't get recalled. This new model has an accelerator that goes wild, but only under certain conditions of cruise control. And I can repeat it over and over and over again - safely.
"This is software. It's not a bad accelerator pedal. It's very scary, but luckily for me, I can hit the brakes."
The problem is, as we all know as geeks, is that all software contains bugs, and sometimes these bugs can be very tricky to shake out, especially on a system as complex as a car where the software is having to process input from a vast array of sensors. Throw into the equation factors such as driving style, weather conditions, terrain and wear and tear and you really do have the perfect recipe for bugs.
Another issue that's going to become troublesome is updates. With a PC, updating software is as easy as sending the new files over the Internet. Cars, on the other hand, need a visit to the dealer. It's likely that at some point in the future cars will be updated automatically using WiFi, but for now, when a company has a problem such as the Prius has with the braking system, tracking down and upgrading all the cars is a nuisance for both maker and owner.
Another problem facing car makers is that failure can't be catastrophic failure (or at least that's the best way to avoid lawsuits). If there's some kind of glitch in a key system such as the brakes (or steering when that becomes controlled by-wire), you want that to sort itself out as quickly as possible. There's no time for rebooting. Developing systems that are resistant to locking up and crashing (pardon the pun) isn't easy, and isn't cheap. But if this is the route that car makers are going to go down, it's something that has to be done. If nothing else, it avoids hefty recall costs (Toyota's recall costs for the Prius are estimated to be in the region of $2 billion). It pays to get it right.
Cars have a long way to go before they are truly smart. I expect we'll see more problems like the ones facing the Prius before things get better.
Toyota recall information can be found here.
Anyone out there own a problem-plagued Prius?