The Other Side of Occam’s Razor: Electronic Glitches

Pedal entrapment may be the easiest explanation for Sudden Unintended Acceleration events in Toyota and Lexus vehicles, but lost in the battle of the floor mats is widespread acknowledgement by automakers, electronics experts and suppliers that electronics regularly cause all kinds of headaches for manufacturers and consumers.

At a 2004 industry conference, Mercedes Benz’s vice president for electrical and electronics and chassis development. Steven Wolfsreid “railed against the temptation to overload vehicles with electronic functions that are useless to the customer,” according to an Automotive News story. The German automaker had removed 600 electronic functions from its vehicles because of quality concerns that were damaging its reputation and ticking off its customers. Electronics are challenging to integrate into a vehicle’s electrical architecture, he said in his 20-minute presentation, and what works well in isolation can be a disaster in combination with other electronic components.

Wolfsreid’s frustration is a natural outgrowth on the explosion of on-board vehicle electronics. According to a Siemens VDO Automotive report estimate in 2004, electronics was the fastest growing sector in the industry with the total value of such systems expected to reach $3.8 billion in 2010. A recent surge in the demand for small cars had blunted the steady upwards trajectory for the cost of Electronic Control Units, according to a new report, entitled “Automotive System Demand Forecast 2007 to 2016: Small Car Strength Hits Short-Term Electronics Demand” by the Boston firm Strategy Analytics.

Nonetheless, accompanying the short-term growth spurt in vehicle electronics has been a corresponding rise in the number of warranty claims and defects.  JD Powers data has shown that as the number of electronic functions a vehicle has rises, so do and the number of defects. German electronics supplier Robert Bosch has reiterated that claim in a trade-pub article on the issue:

“"There is a direct correlation between the number of electronic functions and the number of defects per vehicle," claims Franz Fehrenbach, chairman of the board of management at Robert Bosch GmbH (Stuttgart, Germany). “If the value of electronics content per vehicle doubles in the next five to 10 years as predicted, it isn't hard to imagine what that means for the number of defects if this trend line holds true.”

The increase in microprocessor power, the complexity of software itself exponentially increased by the automotive industry’s strategy of creating separate ECUs, each with its own software for each new system, rather than integrating them in to a dominant system have all contributed to rising warranty costs, tied to vehicle electronics.

While several articles have documented the problems, there has been less written on the solutions. Peugeot’s Car Care website neatly captures the tech/consumer experience, when the electronic glitch is intermittent.

“Walk into any auto repair shop and ask the mechanics what intermittent electronic problems mean to them, and if and if they don’t get real graphic with their answer, then either they don’t do electrical repairs, or they have the patience of a saint. At the very least they will tell you that intermittent problems are headaches. A day at the shop might start something like this. The customer tells the service writer that the vehicle works one minute and not the next. The service writer states this on the repair order. The mechanic checks it out and the vehicle operates fine, so no problem found is written on the repair order. The customer gets the vehicle back and the same thing happens. Now the customer has a headache, he goes back to the service writer who also now has a headache. And it doesn’t take him to long to give the mechanic a headache. I’ll say right now that sometimes no matter how hard all involved work to resolve this problem, it can take some time and patience to find an intermittent problem.”

The automotive industry has acknowledged the issue, now all we need is for it to devote time and patience toward solving it.

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