Once in a while, every now and then, from time to time, this one reoccurring nightmare of mine seems to come to life thanks to our dedicated pals at Miscrosoft. It begins at the end of another rigorous productivity session at the laptop busy programming a website, a server app, or a Solidworks model. Shortly after comes a key distraction in the shop. Someone needs a part pried and held out of the way, or a diagnostic troubleshoot that requires multiple heads in concert, or something that requires me to step away from the screen abruptly and then keeps me away for around 30 minutes or so. When I return, I see that my computer has been automatically updated and restarted leaving virtually every program choking on the file-recovery versions of their former selves. I know, I know, you’re thinking “should have hit save” to which I reply “If ifs and buts were candy and nuts…”

But why was it necessary for Mr. Gates’ stooges to cast this evil on my Monday afternoon? Well, the truth is that the market, the economy, and common sense wont wait for a reliable product tomorrow when the threshold for something that might be sellable has been crossed today. On top of that, there is no realistic expectation that engineers can forsee every method of attack or mode of failure and close those holes before they occur for the first time in a real world setting. So what is this ‘automotive blog post’ getting at? Your car as it turns out is seemingly being designed today by former Microsoft engineers exiled by Mr. Gates in the fallout of the dot-com boom. This real world trend is evident from computers (processor driven modules) controlling just about every function in the vehicle. Why you ask? Take your tail lights… The functions of your tail lights are, stop, reverse, left turn, right turn, hazard, headlight, and alarm flash. Each of these functions requires at least two circuits and possibly three. We have to run all of those wires from just in front of our knees clear back to the rear bumper. The cost and expense of 20-30 wires, the likelihood of defect, and overall complexity is much larger than say,  a single computer mounted in the rear bumper, receiving commands on a single wire and then commanding the different lights on. So now we have computers to roll up and down windows, lock and unlock doors, control our alarms, hook up to our ipods, and warm our dairy-aire on a cold day.

So what happens when an ex-Microsoft lackey fouls up the code on our seat heaters? Well, if it might kill you they (the oems) will issue a recall. If it wont kill you but will probably make you angry, they will issue what is called a Technical Service Bulletin. These notices inform us that there are indeed updates waiting to be loaded to our various computers. Voila! Now we have cars that will routinely and increasingly be repaired with the download of a software patch, a new service pack, or an updated calibration. Que the tech-savvy technician with his vehicle programming interface and “bam”, its fixed. Take solace in knowing that there are no automatic updates to surprise you in your car. Imagine if there were, in the blink of an eye, a typical days distraction might teleport you and your car 3 hours away from where you needed to be…

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