Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Is it time for Car 2.0?

I recently had a few problems with my car. They were problems of the sort that could have got me killed. I'd be bowling along the motorway at 70mph (national speed limit in the UK), when the car would suddenly die. An alarm would sound, lights would flash and the display panel would instruct me to stop (like I had a choice!) because of a fault with the emission levels.

When you're in heavy traffic, in the fast lane, with a dead car, you have no way of getting across the traffic to the safety of the hard shoulder.

So I did what you do. I took it in.

The service folks ran a diagnostic check on it. This basically involves attaching the car's on-board computer to a diagnostic computer so that the car can tell them what's wrong with it. Then they kept it for several days before getting around to fix it. Apparently it had developed a software fault and had needed an upgrade.

And I thought "Why can't I do that?"

Haven't we reached the point where we should be able to do this kind of stuff? We carry out software upgrades and install service packs on our computers. Why not our cars?

In the so called 'good ol' days', I would nip down to the local supplier, pick up a service pack for my make and model of car and then get stuck in changing plugs, points and condenser. I could change the filters faster than I could fry an egg, and, as long as I could get someone with the requisite upper body strength to loosen the sump nut, I could do an oil change, too.

Nowadays, I'm told that some models don't even have a bonnet (hood) that can be opened without a special key issued to accredited service professionals.

An erstwhile colleague of mine once told me that his brand new, swanky car developed a problem of some sort. He stormed into the dealers to give them a piece of his mind. The lady at the reception desk asked for his key, which she plugged into a computer on her desk (presumably a version of the diagnostic machine my guys were talking about) and told him exactly what was wrong with the car and what they would do to remedy it.

So this is what I reckon. In the old days I referred to above, if you had a rough idea of how your car worked, you saved yourself a fortune. If you didn't, you took it in to the shop and got royally ripped off. They told you the overhead swivel shaft was bent, the splashfeet wipers needed to be replaced and the allynyumnyum tank had sprung a leak. You nodded sagely and wrote out a cheque.

The current arrangement must surely be placing us at risk of the same unscrupulous operators. With the on-board computer as off-limits as the pre-Gutenberg Bible, we're at the mercy of the high priests of car maintenance.

If the data can be stored on a key, why can't we plug the key into our own computers, connect to the manufacturer's website and run our own diagnostic check? If what the car needs is a software upgrade, why can't we download that directly to the key and then upload it to the car via the ignition? Or, better yet, why can't we interface directly with the on-board computer, connect to the manufacturer via a wireless network and download what is needed directly to the car?

Sure, we have to bear in mind that we entrust the safety of our families to these vehicles, but we did that when we bundled them into a car on which we had changed the wheels, set the timing and replaced the carburettor.

Am I being over-ambitious? I put this to my husband, and he spouted all sorts of stuff about liability and data security and stuff, but I'm probably not clever enough to be convinced. If they can figure out a way for us to download a patch to the machine that runs our business and therefore represents our livelihood, surely those issues can be addressed?



walter said...


this is a site for managing car maintenances

The upsycho said...

@walter - thanks, but that's a far cry from what I had in mind :o(

V Yonkers said...

I'm with you. Last year, my husband and I worked on fixing a chip in our computer (using a pencil eraser that the help desk representative told us worked in the Philippines, where he was located).

The mystic of the computer was completely debunked and I feel, I could replace the chip anywhere, even in my car!