Is faith in automotive electronics and software misplaced?

Given the high-profile coverage of Toyota’s recent recalls, we are beginning to see increased focus on the safety of electronic systems in cars.  For example, see the article “Your Car Computer Can Kill You“.  Indeed.  Are we putting too much faith into electronics and software that control our cars?

Let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Fly-by-wire systems transformed the aviation industry, so much so that for trans-continental and inter-continental flights are flown for the most part by an auto pilot.   Engines, ailerons, landing gears, and other equipment which used to be mechanically coupled are all controlled “by-wire”.  (Mechanical linkages are replaced by wires that carry signals from pilot interfaces to the actuators that control the plane).    Three glitches of the Boeing 777 are  noteworthy and illustrative.

  1. The first was on August 1, 2005, when a Malaysia Airlines 777 over the Pacific thought that it was both flying too fast and too slow!  The autopilot pitched the plane’s nose upwards trying to stall the plane.   Then, when the pilots brought it back, it started pitching upwards again.  Eventually, the pilots regained control and the software had to be fixed.  An accelerometer sensor reading was suspected to have played a role.
  2. In January 2008, a Boeing 777 crash-landed at the Heathrow Airport when both its engines seemed to fail.    Subsequent investigations indicated that there had been ice in the fuel causing both engines to lose power.
  3. In January 2010, a flock of birds hit an Airbus 320 taking off from LaGuardia airport in New York, and Captain Chesley Sullenberger was widely applauded for his masterful landing of the plane on the Hudson river.  Nobody was killed.
  4. In June 2009, an Airbus A330 disappeared over the Atlantic in a thunderstorm killing 280 people.   Short circuits and an incorrect speed sensor were both suspected but no confirmation could be obtained since the wreckage could not be located.

Until the first of the above two incidents, Boeing had put more than 600 planes of its 777s into service and not one had crashed.   A remarkable track record indeed.    Sensor malfunctions and ice in the fuel are not electronics problems per se – they would have affected mechanical systems equally or even worse.   In the “Hudson Miracle’, in addition to the captain’s equanimity and superb execution under pressure, the fly-by-wire system also deserves a good amount of credit for keeping the plane controllable.   In the last incident, incorrect sensor readings would be devastating to a human pilot in control as well.

Fly-by-wire systems have what made intercontinental flights what they are today: comfortable, fuel-efficient, and affordable.    We cannot and will not go back to mechanical systems.  And fly-by-wire systems have indeed stood the test of time.  Given intense competition between Boeing and Airbus at the mega-plane level, and many other players in the smaller jet segment, competition continues to be strong.  Quality and reliability will only go up (sometimes in stutter steps, sometimes two steps forwards and one step backwards.   And yes sometimes one step forwards and two steps backwards as we understand operating limits, working assumptions, and system deficiencies better).

Now, let’s consider by-wire systems in automobiles.   Throttle-by-wire systems (also called drive-by-wire systems incorrectly) have been in the limelight in recent months due to the Toyota recalls.   (Toyota’s electronic throttle control system is called ETCS-i).   Brake-by-wire systems have been the recent subject of some narrow Ford Fusion recalls (see previous post).

By-wire systems are what bring better fuel-efficiency, emissions control and functionality to automobiles.   Traction control, cruise control, airbags inflating on crashes, climate control and anti-lock braking, to name just a few, are functions that are enabled by electronic/by-wire systems.   Would one go back to mechanical systems without these features?   Would you?   Would accidents, deaths and injuries go up or down if one did so?  We want more power, more mileage, more safety and more comfort.  We enjoy these features and when something inevitably goes wrong, we blame the same technology that made life better.   Makes.  No.  Sense.   Glitches are inevitable – such is life.  But life is indeed better.

Technology will continue to improve (in) the future, and more and more by-wire features will continue to be added into automobiles, not less.  And that is indeed the right direction to go.  The markets and consumers will reward those who incorporate innovative features and fail-safe mechanism at the most affordable price-points and in the most attractive packages.   Let this highly competitive global market find the best, safest and most reliable cars for your needs.

Software and electronics in automobiles – give them their fair due.  You don’t want to go back to a day when they were not around to help.

– Raj

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