Crashing computers, and cars too

Recent recalls are raising fears about computerized hybrids

Crashing computers, and cars too

Sit inside a Toyota Prius hybrid and it’s hard not to marvel at all the high-tech eye candy: push-button ignition, touch-screen display and digital images of the vehicle’s dual gas-electric powertrains at work. But while automakers have generally rushed to highlight the sophisticated technology under the hood of their hybrids, Toyota’s recent decision to recall nearly half a million Prius vehicles because of a software glitch may cause drivers to think twice about buying such overly computerized cars.

Toyota decided to issue the recall because of a problem with the Prius’s computer-controlled brake system—specifically the way it switches between its hydraulic (stopping) and regenerative (power storing) braking systems, which can lead to uneven braking on bumpy terrain. Similarly, Ford said it would provide owners of some of its hybrid models with a software patch to fix a similar problem. “Hybrids have tended to be relatively error free compared to regular vehicles—that is, until now,” says Tony Faria, co-director of the University of Windsor business school’s Office of Automotive Research. Suddenly, these high-tech cars can seem downright scary.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Toyota is in the midst of recalling some 8.1 million vehicles worldwide amid a small number of complaints of “unintended acceleration.” So far, Toyota has identified ill-fitting floor mats and potentially sticky gas pedals as the culprits, but several observers have suggested Toyota’s drive-by-wire throttles (which replace the mechanical link between gas pedals and the engine with an electronic one) are to blame. It hasn’t helped that Apple co-founder and engineering guru Steve Wozniak publicly speculated that he was having software-related problems with the cruise control mechanism on his Prius.

The reality is that most new vehicles (hybrid or otherwise) are as much about software as mechanics. And given most people’s experience with personal computers—buggy software and hard drive crashes—that’s no longer a very comforting thought.

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