21 November 2006

Cars and computers go together like software and viruses

Ever noticed how computers are taking over more and more of the car's operations? In the space of a few short years computers now control the car's engine, throttle, gearbox, drivetrain, steering and brakes. Not to mention the stereo, navigation, climate control, lights, wipers and seats. The key to this amazing and rapid computerisation is software. This is especially true in high-performance vehicles that use electronic aids in an attempt to wring every last increment of performance out of those four little contact patches where the rubber meets the road.

Cue the Mazda6 MPS - a turbo-charged, all-wheel drive, uber-sedan that applies lots of clever software to a very sophisticated drivetrain to produce very high levels of performance. I recently test-drove the Mazda6 MPS and I can report that it's a sophisticated, refined and very rapid motor car. It's a remarkable car.

One of the more remarkable things about the 2006 model Mazda6 MPS, aside from the ballistic acceleration, tenacious grip and sure-footed handling, is the brochure. Not for the usual rich artwork (Wow - look at that blurred car! Will my car look like that?) and ego-flattering imagery (Your heartbeat will accelerate rapidly in the MPS as beautiful women throw themselves onto your bonnet and scream "Pick Me! Pick Me!"). No, the truly remarkable thing about the Mazda6 MPS brochure is the last page on the Mazda Maintenance Program that confidently asserts that one of the many benefits of owning this vehicle are the regular, direct from the factory…(wait for it)… software updates.

"… Mazda Service Centres can receive constant updates for Mazda6 MPS from Mazda Motor Corporation Japan"

Constant software updates? What is this, Windows Update for my car? Do I have to register? What if I only have a dial-up connection? What if I have a Mac? Should I backup my car before applying an update?

The brochure continues:

"Among other things, they can include tune-ups to the engine management system and revisions to the all-wheel drive system."

Among other things? What other things? Korean language support? New device drivers? I can understand revisions to the engine management system, but revisions to the all-wheel drive system? What’s that all about? Adding a fifth wheel?

I've been hanging around software for long enough to know what this is all about. It's about bugs. The thing has buggy software. Mazda, of course, knows the software is buggy (after all, they have the Test Plan and Final Integration Test results) and their spin doctors are turning bug fixes into an automotive must-have.

As I contemplate the ownership experience of a Mazda6 MPS I can just imagine driving the car really fast and falling off the road. (Well, it has happened before...). The conversation might go something like this:

Police Officer/Tow Truck Driver/Insurance Agent/Wife/God: "What happened?"

Me: "Well, I was driving a bit briskly around this off-camber, tightening radius corner and I pressed skip on my iPod and the thing spun backwards into the trees. It’s never done that before!"

Police Officer/Tow Truck Driver/Insurance Agent/Wife/God: "It wasn't the Nano, was it?"

Me: "The Nano?! No. It's a regular iPod."

Police Officer/Tow Truck Driver/Insurance Agent/Wife/God: "With the touch wheel or the click wheel?"

Me: "I dunno! It's the 20 Gig model. Anyway, what difference does that make?"

Police Officer/Tow Truck Driver/Insurance Agent/Wife/God: "Never mind. Were you running MPS SP2 with the updated MP3 and Yaw drivers?"

Me: "I dunno!! I ran MazdaUpdate a few weeks ago and it said something about "To enhance your Mazda experience you need to install Service Pack 2." I think it installed. How can you tell if it installed? Anyway, what difference does that make?"

Police Officer/Tow Truck Driver/Insurance Agent/Wife/God: "Never mind. It's a bit late now, isn't it!"

Me: "Ummm… Am I still licensed/insured/married/alive without the update?"

Now bugs can be serious, but that is only half of the story. The thing that they don’t tell you in the brochure is that where there is software, there are viruses. Sooner or later there will be car viruses (if they don't exist already). In fact, I might download the car virus creator kit (the updated version that supports MPS SP2) and start creating a few myself.

I’ll start with the carwash virus. This virus waits until the car is idling in neutral, moving forward slowly and the sensors indicate it’s raining and then winds all the windows down and sounds the horn. Should be very popular with the ladies.

Then I’ll do the roundabout virus - entry and exit strains. The entry strain waits until the car is entering a roundabout from a slow speed with large throttle opening and then sets engine output to 20% for two seconds, then 110% for two seconds while directing all power to the inside front wheel and giving maximum assist to the electric steering. This might help people learn how to drive onto the roundabout smoothly. The exit strain is for those turbo-nutters who are way past help. It waits until the car is doing a full throttle exit from a roundabout and just as the driver starts to unwind lock the virus triggers and engages the handbrake, turns the engine off, turns the hazards on, tunes the stereo to Radio National and turns the seat warmers on high. By the time the car stops the guy will be up to date on the latest book reviews as well as the weather in South America. The hazards are for the amusement of other drivers and the seat warmers will help the police tracker dogs if the driver shits himself.

Cars and computers – this should be a lot of fun.


Anonymous said...

Dear Trudge About,

If you turn the steering wheel all the way to left lock, press the brake pedal three times and put the driver's window down 2cm - the names of the software developers will display on your ipod.

Anonymous said...

more please

Steve Bogner said...

I read a while ago about the new Porsche 911 turbo (997 edition, they said)... when you accelerate hard the compute move the brake shoes ever-so-closer to the rotors, anticipating that you might want stop ever-so-faster. Now, we all know the Germans write excellent software, so I'm not too concerned with that ;) But the possibilites for failure, as you write, are interesting.

p.s. - welcome to blogging.