The Silicon Tide – Do Car Computers Control Too Much?

The lure of the modern pony car is rapidly becoming something far beyond irresistible. Regardless of your brand preference, the market now offers a contemporary solution that is affordable and delivers performance undreamed of in the late sixties and early seventies. Beyond this is the undeniable level of convenience that modern cars offer when compared to their forty-odd year old relatives.

While I salute those hardcore enthusiasts I see, driving their sixties and seventies era ponycars to the Woodward Dream Cruise every August, I know that they are an endangered species. Face it, they are aging just as quickly as their cars and you can only do a three or four-hour run with no air conditioning, a suspect cooling system and sagging springs so many times. Even when you care little about the number of air bags and cup holders, the Siren’s song of a new, leather wrapped, nine-speaker, GPS-enabled, climate controlled, micron-filtered interior surrounded by flashy sheet metal with 400+ horsepower and 25+ mpg at 75 mph quickly erodes even the most stalwart purist’s determination.

But, it was a quiet revolution. Beginning in the early seventies, electronic control units (ECUs) made their first appearance in the guise of electronic ignition controllers. Eliminating the mechanical complexity of points, springs and counterweights, they quickly slipped in under the public radar and established themselves as reliable and, at least in the long term, less expensive. Sure, there were some spectacular failures and expensive replacement parts, but then, who hears about the 90+ percent of examples that just kept on doing their routine jobs?


Photos: Ford and Intel Corp.

The automotive “computer” had not yet arrived on the scene. These “boxes” were still relatively simple analog circuits built largely on discrete components and a feeble understanding of volume manufacturing processes that lead to the standards of reliability we accept as normal today. The adoption of fuel injection through the eighties led the demand for faster and more capable processing. Such demands were easily met by the meteoric progress of the electronics industry, from which Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft once quipped, “If General Motors had kept up with the technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25.00 cars that got 1,000 miles to the gallon.”

Recently, the New York Times published an article suggesting that today’s cars are, in fact, packed with up to 100 million lines of computer code… more than in some jet fighters. We’ll bet that even Bill Gates didn’t see that coming. Today’s high end luxury cars are reported to be driven by as many as a hundred computers, while even the most plebeian of today’s offerings are a sure bet to have at least thirty… so many, in fact, that they have to have a network of their own.

When you start to take a census, this figure should not be astounding. First, some of the obvious applications come to mind. Climate control systems accept a target temperature, read sensors and adjust AC or heat output accordingly, while some will even sense inbound pollutants and recirculate air instead of drawing from the outside. Antilock braking systems read wheel speeds and adjust the vehicle’s braking to maximize performance. Engine controllers sense everything from road speed to gas pedal position, altitude, temperature and oxygen content in the exhaust in order to maintain performance while minimizing pollutants. Other vehicle systems, from smart door locks, to automatic headlights, to keyless entry systems, through that high end stereo and the parking warning devices are all monitored or driven by an ECU of some kind.

The revolution is far from over. Representative Gene Green (D-TX) actively supports of a Federal mandate to install Event Data Recorders in all new vehicles. EDRs can provide important crash related data that will help promote vehicle and occupant safety on America’s roads. Beyond this, one proposal for the next level of On Board Diagnostics (OBD-3) will have your car ratting you out to the DOT if emissions performance degrades too far. Another version will have your return its current speed to a roadside transponder… a scenario that has already been successfully tested across six lanes of traffic. There may be some legal issues to be sorted out before these aspects come into play, but the ultimate outcome is in little doubt.

Am I worried? Sure, and you should be too. In the meantime, my ride just unlocked as I walked up to it. I’ll be plugging my USB key into the console for some new tunes on the way home. I’ll just hit the Start button and be off now. On the way, I think I’ll check for any new restaurant listings or reviews. If something sounds good, I’ll ask my car to call the wife. Perhaps her car can tell me if she’s home yet.

About the author

Tom Bobolts

Tom started working for Power Automedia in early 2008 at the young age of 20. Starting off as an intern spinning wrenches in the PowerTV garage, Tom cut his teeth helping us build the very project cars we feature. Since moving inside the office, most of his time is spent writing and shooting installs - but he still finds time to get out in the shop. Outside of work, Tom enjoys a variety of different motorsports from Street Bikes, Muscle Cars and just about anything that demands high amounts of horsepower.
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