Is car technology now just too complex?

22:33, Feb 04 2010

The very first car I ever bought with my hard-earned money was a 1938 Morris 8.

This was an incredibly simple vehicle that boasted, as its most advanced feature, the wonders of hydraulic brakes.

Under the bi-fold bonnet was a little lump of cast iron that, from a mechanical perspective was the embodiment of simplicity.

Even the most inexperienced mechanic could instantly identify the very few parts that made up this little side-valve engine and the only tools you needed to completely strip and rebuild one were a socket set, ring-spanners and a screwdriver or two.

Oh how things have changed!

The new cars you can buy today are some of the most complex pieces of technology on the planet.


In fact, I'd wager that there's more complex technology in your late-model car than there was onboard the first Eagle Lander which safely landed man on the moon.

Even once you discount the satellite navigation system, the CD/MP3 player with iPod docking and the hands-free cellphone, there's still a mountain of really clever stuff going on.

It's only natural that once the Japanese got involved in the manufacture of cars, that their abilities in the field of electronics would become a key component of automotive technology.

Now our cars have electronically controlled multi-point fuel injection instead of an old SU carby.

They have electronically variable valve-timing instead of the old uber-simple side-valve setup.

They also have cruise-control, anti-lock braking, impact-activated airbags and a host of other uber-tech systems.

What's more, if you want to work on one of these vehicles you'll need a damned site more than a collection of sockets and ring-spanners to do the job.

In fact, even doing an oil-change on these marvels of modern automotive technology bas become something that only a few owners would even contemplate undertaking.

The good thing is that, despite being at least an order of magnitude more complex, today's cars are also an order of magnitude more reliable. Back in the first half of the 20th century, cars could be relied on to break down with almost monotonous regularity.

Anyone contemplating a long trip in summer would carry extra water (for when the engine overheated on a steep grade) and a few pints (remember them) of oil to replace that which escaped past the rapidly wearing piston rings and valve-guides.

Most engines required a "valve job" every 30,000-50,000 miles and a total recondition (re-bore, rings, valves) was usually on the cards well before 100,000 miles.

Today's modern vehicles will run for as many as 500,000 Kms (300,000 miles) with little more than regular preventive maintenance so the fact that they're so complex would seem to be irrelevant.

Or is it?

Suddenly we've had a spate of reports in the media that might indicate we're now reaching a point where the complexity of our cars is making life hard for manufacturers and consumers alike.

Toyota has had to recall millions of vehicles affected by an "uncommanded acceleration" problem. While that appears to be largely mechanical, they're now also investigating issues with the cruise control and brakes on their latest Prius -- both of which appear to be very much related to electronics and/or software.

The ever-increasing pressure to deliver vehicles with improved fuel economy and safety is pushing manufacturers' to the limit and I'm picking we'll see even more in the way of tech-stuff-ups in coming months and years.

Drive-by-wire is increasingly being used as a way of improving performance and reducing manufacturing costs but what happens when something as complex as this goes wrong?

Even something as simple as the ignition switch on modern vehicles is causing issues. Those who experienced the "uncommanded acceleration" and cruise control issues of late have found that the old strategy of simply turning off the engine by rotating the ignition key didn't work.

Some of these newer "smarter" vehicles won't allow you to turn the engine off while the vehicle is in motion (since the power-steering and power brakes rely on the engine in order to work effectively). In other cases, there simply isn't any "ignition key" as we used to know it.

Some vehicles with an "engine" button require you to hold that button for several seconds when you wish to turn off the motor. Those few seconds could be a very long time if your hurtling down a narrow road with the throttle stuck at maximum power.

In the case of a hybrid in "hurtle-mode", the engine might not even be going -- the vehicle may be running solely on the electric motor.

With this (and the extortionate cost of a regular service on a modern car) in mind, I sometimes contemplate how nice it would be to have a simple yet modern vehicle that dispensed with all the electronicry in favour of simplicity.

Apply all the modern materials, metallurgy, design and manufacturing processes to that Morris 8 and what would you have?

A relatively low-performance vehicle that would be uber-reliable yet simple to fix if it did go wrong. It should also be very cheap to build and maintain. As a consumer, I might just be willing to spend an extra litre per 100kms to get those benefits. Hey, are we talking Tata Nano here?

What do you think? Is auto-tech now reaching the point where the sheer complexity will introduce flaws and faults that could undermine the public's confidence and safety?

What was your first car and how does it compare to the one you drive now (from a technology, cost and reliability perspective)?

Would you buy the uber-simple yet reliable 21st century equivalent of the Morris 8 should someone build and sell one?

Waikato Times