Advances in car technology bring high-class headaches

http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2003-11-11-carrepairs_x.htm 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 speeds.
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 7-series.
"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 it useless.
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 warning light.
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 are getting.
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 demand.
"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 run.
"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."
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MoPar Man wrote:

Tell us which rims. I'd love to buy a car with no electronics in it, actually.(or all solid-state) Oh - wait - let's see - a classic 6o's vehcile in mint condition often costs less than a Civic.

Wel, DUH. Give Honda a cookie.

How about making a more reliable car instead of more useless features? Millions in engineering . I can see it now - rooms full of recent college idiots who sit around all day thinking up "phat" ides to put in the cars.
Yet they make the door panels thinner every few years to "save money".

Tell that to my insurance rates. Perfcet driving record. $1600 a year. Welcome to California.
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And what happens 10 or 15 yrs down the road. Electrical problems have bedeviled car owners since the automobile was invented and they don't get any better with age. A lot of cars have been junked over the years because the electrical problems were either too costly or the owners lost patience. Vibration, flexing, wear and corrosion are are all the enemies of electrical components and all are present in cars. Bad grounds are especially a source of problems. And they expect the new cars with all the computer stuff to be immune from these problems. Wait untill they get older.

college
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been
costly
are
They know that the electronics will be fried but since the automakers don't make any money on old cars, they don't give a rat's ass.
Ted
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sps_700 wrote:

The less you have of it, the better. Most of the 80's era problems were due to silly things like U.S. mandated "biodegradeable"(as they later found out) wiring.
I was talking to someone yesterday - he said he still has his 60's Chevy truck because at worst, he drops a new engine in it every 200K. No electronics, and a dirt-simple electrical system/ Off-road capable, too.
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Nomen Nescio wrote:

Tell that to:
Bosch Continental AG (inc Temic) Delphi Automotive Systems Denso Hitachi (inc Unisia JECS) Johnson Controls Inc (inc Sagem) Magneti Marelli (Finmek) Motorola Siemens VDO TRW Automotive Valeo Visteon Arvin Meritor Inc Autoliv Fujitsu Ten Hella KG Hueck & Co Lear Corp Omron Sumitomo Electric
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Probably.
Yes. Keep in mind that the computers get a lot of induced RF and such from the ignition system, so all the inputs have to be well protected from spikes and such.

Yes. Overclockers have been doing some amazing things with liquid nitrogen and commercial grade components. Check this out:
http://www.muropaketti.com/artikkelit/cpu/northwood2200/ln2 /

that
Keep in mind that pure rainwater is not conductive. It is a popular myth that water conducts electricity. It doesen't. However water dissolves anything and it's the dissolved minerals in water that actually conduct electricity. The problem with water shorting out components is that dust, dirt, rust and crud get rapidly carried into cables by water and it's those substances that are conductive and that wreck things.

A distinction needs to be drawn between "proven" electronic systems and "specials"
Take electronic ignition. The parts for this are now commodity items and very reliable. So it's not a problem to spec an electronic ignition for a car now. However, 30 years ago when it was just coming in, there were a lot of failures in early electonic ignition systems.
But a lot of the new electronics, like the auto seat positioners, vibrators and dick washers that they are putting in cars, those have no history behind them and your going to see lots of failures for a number of years before those electronics become commodity and reliable.
Ted
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