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What Happens When Cars Become Computers?

I would not want to give up the advances the electronic revolution has allowed in automobiles. Electronics including computers help our cars run efficiently, decide when to fire front and side airbags, and even prevent loss of control through use of highly effective Electronic Stability Control systems.
But we all know that computers have glitches. love my PC. But now and then it crashes. If something goes wrong in my car’s electronics, I don’t want the same thing to happen.
When I was a kid my dad showed me how stepping on the gas pedal physically pulled a cable that opened the throttle valve and made the engine rev. In the last decade many cars have done away with that physical cable and replaced it with an electrical system that senses movement of the gas pedal and sends an electronic signal to a computer that in turn sends a signal to the throttle valve to open and close. Like a computer, this works great when it works. But what about when it doesn’t?
Electronic throttle systems in many cars have a fail safe mechanism to protect us from just that. If your throttle mistakenly thinks your foot is on the accelerator, all you need to do is touch the brake – the natural instinctive reaction to runaway acceleration – and the throttle is cut off. This doesn’t require anything fancy. For decades cruise control systems have known to cut off as soon as the brake is applied.
As Toyota is recalling and stopping sales of millions of vehicles due to reports of runaway unintended acceleration, we need to think about the computerization of our cars. Toyota attributes the problem to human error, or floor mats, or accelerator pedal wear. But could the problem be in the software? Why should we think our car’s computer systems would be that much more stable than the computers on our desks? Isn’t it logical that this software and hardware can cause glitches without anyone really understanding how or why, just like it does in our PCs?
And shouldn’t we design cars to make sure that when the electronics screw up, as we know they will from time to time, the result is an inconvenience, not a tragedy?
- Stuart Ollanik

More Toyota Products Liability Lawsuits Over Sudden Acceleration Wrongful Deaths, Product Liability Blog Mar. 24, 2010
What was Toyota Doing About Unintended Acceleration Five Years Ago?, Product Liability Blog Mar. 23, 2010

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