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Sunday, February 06, 2005

High Tech Cars : Weeks Of Training & Days Of Manual Read

(Via NYTimes) Most automakers have had problems with electronics inside automobiles, quality rankings for some - particularly technology-intensive German luxury brands renowned for engineering - have plunged. Not only are the glitches annoying, their root causes can be hard to find. Problems are often fleeting and may not be recorded by on-board diagnostics systems. It's these transient things that tend to drive people nuts. "The complexity is increasing - There's just a lot more electronics." "It's one of the biggest quality issues the automotive industry is dealing with," Mr.Thilo Koslowski of Gartner said. "The problem is that most of these applications in the vehicle are being supplied by a lot of different suppliers." Mr. Koslowski said the auto industry was not yet very good at integrating software, so buyers inherit systems that can interfere with one another - just as installing incompatible programs can make a personal computer malfunction. He said a niche might soon emerge for companies that integrate various software systems before they go into a vehicle, in the way that companies like Dell sell PC's with the operating system and programs already working in harmony.

I.B.M. is planning to provide that kind of service. Meg Self,director of Embedded Systems Lifecycle Management,IBM said that 32 percent of warranty costs could be attributed to dealership service visits at which no problem was found. I.B.M. predicts that by 2010, almost all cars will have essentially the same mechanical systems. What will make the cars different will be software that operates the systems in ways specific to the brand of car. With so much of a vehicle's identity riding on computer code, carmakers must get the software right.As more electronics and software make their way into all sorts of vehicles, hard-to-diagnose problems have cropped up repeatedly. Luxury cars packed with electronic features suffer more because they adopt new technology earlier.And the gremlins may be especially galling to luxury buyers who expect their cars' pricey "surprise and delight" features to delight them, not to surprise them in unpleasant ways.

BMW says it takes an ordinary driver about a month to become comfortable with iDrive. To help new owners, the company suggests that they bring their cars back to the dealer after two weeks for an intensive training session. Mercedes-Benz had to replace many of its early Comand integrated control systems because of failures, and has since worked to simplify the controls
. Stephan Wolfsried, vice president for electronic systems in Germany, told the company had eliminated 600 electronic functions in its cars, starting with the 2003 models, to improve quality and make the remaining functions easier to use. A spokesman for Mercedes-Benz USA, Robert Moran, said it was important to distinguish technological leadership in safety features from high-tech convenience features. "We are not in a race to out-tech the competition, but do embrace new technologies" that result in better cars.Complex systems that are hard to learn can frustrate early users, but are ultimately accepted. Other systems, though, tend to crash, just like computers. When that happens, drivers can be maddened by failures that force them to stop the car, then restart it; that illuminate the "check engine" light; or that send the car into limp-home mode. One common problem comes not from software, but from pollution controls. On cars with second-generation diagnostics, a sensor often interprets a loose gas cap as a failure of the the evaporative emissions system, tripping the "check engine" light.Electronics problems are the bane of luxury cars, and owners often don't know if they have the latest version of the software that runs crucial systems.

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