Posted 11/11/2003 10:59 PM
Advances in car technology bring high-class headaches
By Jayne O'Donnell, USA TODAY
A California salesman says he had owned his 2003 BMW 7-series a few
weeks in the spring when it stopped starting. When he hit highway
speeds one evening after it was serviced, compact discs spit out at
his passenger and the engine began sputtering and lurching until it
died at the side of the road.
The problem: The computers running the state-of-the-art electronics in
his $80,000 car were full of bugs.
The car owner, who can't be identified because BMW insisted he sign a
confidentiality statement when it bought back his car, isn't alone.
Thanks to the latest electronics, cars can tell you the pressure in
each tire, display stock quotes or give directions to the nearest
Italian restaurant. But the complex computer systems required to do
all that have broken down on hundreds, perhaps thousands, of luxury
vehicles, wreaking havoc on the lives of their owners. (Related story:
Critics: Automakers should offer more data)
"People have reported total electronic shutdowns to us attributed to
the network in the 7-series," says Donald Buffamanti, founder of
AutoSpies.com, which bills itself as "the ultimate insiders guide to
the world's best automobiles." "Service specialists who have decades
of experience fly to dealers to look into these malfunctions and
sometimes they can't figure out what happened."
The problems show up on high-end cars because they get the most
whiz-bang gadgetry first. That adds insult to annoyance because owners
have spent so much on their wheels. Complaints about BMW 7-series and
Mercedes-Benz (Parent: DCX) E- and S-class cars range from
disconnected calls on built-in phones to seats that adjust without
warning while cars are moving, to engines that shut down at highway
Computers associated with high-tech goodies and government-mandated
safety features are increasingly the target of consumer complaints.
Electronics were the source of 14% of complaints late last year from
new car owners, up from 8% in 1987, according to consulting firm J.D.
Power and Associates.
Fernando Castro says the 2003 Mercedes E 500 sedan he bought last
January from a Florida dealership has been in the shop at least 12
times for electronic problems, including a faulty phone and fuel
gauge, the latter of which has left him stranded and out of gas.
Warnings from his tire pressure monitor send him to the service
station every few days to check his pressure.
"Why does it have a computer that reads the problems if they can't fix
them?" he asks.
Buffamanti says he's heard from at least 500 owners of 2002 7-series
and about 200 owners of 2001-03 Mercedes who say dealers bought back
their cars after they complained about problems with electronics. Both
companies asked the customers to sign non-disclosure agreements, so
several people who discussed their experiences with USA TODAY would
not allow their names to be used.
BMW says it has ironed out most of the major problems with the
"There have been some start-up problems with the new generation of
electronics, and specifically the iDrive, but sales and research show
that the car is meeting and exceeding expectations," says BMW
spokesman Gordon Keil. "There is a not-uncommon shakedown period of
one to two years with technology this new." IDrive is BMW's computer
system that controls navigation, phone and stereo.
Mercedes says it has increased product testing 50% and has largely
solved problems with its system, known as Comand.
"Quality is an important part of our heritage; it is one of our core
values," says Stephan Wolfsried, director of vehicle electronics and
chassis for the Mercedes Car Group. "That is why we are aggressively
addressing the real — as well as the perceived — issues."
New car quality, in fact, is at an all-time high, but complaints about
electronic accessories have stalled automakers' efforts to improve
their quality scores, J.D. Power studies show. Electronics problems,
for instance, are offsetting gains from improved engines.
Luxury car owners aren't the only ones affected by quirky computers.
Warning lights are flashing, often needlessly, on the dashboards of
every brand sold in the USA. Even basic cars have computers that
control most of what makes them go.
"Engine lights come on so easily, and many times they can only be
reset by a dealer even if there is nothing wrong," says Dave Hurt,
president of Certified Car Care, a company that sells extended
warranties. "Diagnosis of problems is a lot more complicated these
days because of the amount of electronics in a car."
John Nielsen, director of AAA's approved auto repair network, says
it's little surprise that things are going wrong and some of the
problems are hard to fix.
The new Audi A8L, for example, has 36 computers with 1,600 trouble
codes, he says. "These things make the space shuttle look antiquated."
Among the electronics:
• Several 2004 models come equipped with a government-mandated warning
system that tells a driver when pressure in one of the tires is low.
But it also can give false readings, too many readings and raise the
costs of tire replacement and routine maintenance, according to
several car and tire company officials. When certain tires are placed
on rims with the warning system, they can block the signal and render
• Emission control systems that have been setting off "check engine"
dashboard lights since the 1996 model year now have about 700 possible
trouble codes. A problem as simple as a loose gas cap can prompt a
A dead battery can wipe out the trouble codes, making it impossible to
perform state-ordered emissions testing on a car. The owner may have
to drive the car for a few days to replenish the codes, then return
for the test.
• More advanced air bags being phased into new vehicles have monitors
that can set off an SRS (for "supplemental restraint system") light.
One luxury car owner says it took a dealer 19 hours to reset the
computer after his light went on.
Wolfsried says the increasing demand for safety, comfort, performance
and lower emissions can't be achieved without advanced electronics.
But J.D. Power's surveys show that while people are demanding advanced
safety features, they are not asking for as much technology as they
Erik Berkman, an executive engineer at Honda (HMC), acknowledges that
some of the new features in the Acura TL — such as locks that can be
programmed to each driver's specifications — are an example of the
market pushing new technology rather than responding to consumer
"Some people see it as just one more thing that can go wrong," Berkman
says. "When you're adding complexity, you are adding risks."
The new Cadillac (Parent: GM) XLR sports car can be started without a
key as long as the electronic key is nearby. And, like some Mercedes
models, it has "adaptive cruise control," which maintains a set
distance from the car in front to make highway driving less tiring.
Cadillac tested pre-production versions of the XLR for more than 1
million miles — twice what's usual — to make sure the systems would be
as trouble-free as possible.
"When we first went to electronics, everything we did added a wire,"
says David Leone, who has been a Cadillac engineer for 24 years. "But
with every connection, there was an opportunity for a problem."
Leone, chief engineer on XLR, says Cadillac now uses fewer wires and
more redundant chips to keep malfunctioning computers from creating
problems. Cadillac also is adding technology aimed at cutting the
number of driver headaches. For instance, motorists who have General
Motors' satellite communications system and get a check-engine alert
can get the problem diagnosed remotely. It's the same for cars with
the Mercedes satellite communications system.
Even if the systems do occasionally malfunction, benefits should
outweigh annoyances when safety is the issue.
State Farm Insurance spokesman Dick Luedke says technology has
increased the cost of some repairs for insurance companies. But State
Farm thinks the cost is "approximately offset by reduction in the
severity of crashes."
Wolfsried says it is better to have a safety feature like a tire
pressure monitor, "and understand that it increases complexity, than
not to have it at all."
BMW's Keil suggests that even though some of the early adopters have
suffered as the kinks are worked out, customers will win in the long
"The good news is that if it's working right after four years, it will
continue to work for a long time after that," Keil says. "Electronics
have a much longer life than mechanical parts."