Toyota recalls, fly by wire and too much technology

If there is one thing that has changed beyond all recognition since I started out in this business nearly thirty years ago, it’s the amount of electronic wizardry now fitted as standard to modern cars. Much of it, in my opinion is very necessary but some of it increasingly is totally unnecessary. Worse still, we don’t even have a choice.

Take for example the frustrating and pointless “tyre pressure monitor module” Should your tyre pressure drop below the norm by even a few pounds, up comes the light on the dashboard, and if you are really unlucky not only will it flash continually until you do something about it, but even after you correct the so called fault, it won’t go out again!

Or how about that old favourite “the Airbag Warning light” not a week goes by without our workshop continually replacing “cassette modules” behind the steering wheel that have decided to part company with their components at not inconsiderable cost to the customer, and is it pure coincidence that they always seem to fail after the manufacturer’s warranty has expired? Possibly.

Then again there is always that most favourite of technological delights, the “engine management unit”, or ECU to those of us who have just been relieved of anywhere up to the tune of £1,000 (and beyond in some cases) for the pleasure of having that little picture of an engine on our dashboards turned off.

I could go on and on here about the sheer variety of technological advances that have turned our vehicles from pleasure to pain, but I wont, because Toyota have done that for me.

As I write this Toyota are embarking upon one of the biggest and most costly recalls in motoring history, about a $2 billion dollar loss if today’s broadsheet press is to be believed. Dr Peter Wells of the centre for Automotive Industry Research in Cardiff states, and I quote…….

“Cars and the industry have changed almost beyond recognition in the past decade, not long ago each car used to be largely unique with its own specially-designed parts and chassis, but that changed along with the motor industry’s desire to become more competitive by driving down costs. When a manufacturer designs a component today it will go into countless different models sold around the world, models that look nothing alike from the outside, why? To cut costs. Unfortunately this commonality means that if a component does go wrong it’s going to go wrong in a lot of different cars, all around the world.

The price to pay for small, often unexciting components shared across a vast number of model ranges is that when something does go wrong it now goes wrong in a big, big way! Vehicles are a lot more complex and mechanical components are more reliable than ever, but the interface between these components and new electronics is getting more difficult, that too will be a source of problems to come. Meanwhile the lasting damage to the reputation of Toyota built so emphatically on safety and reliability and so seldom on excitement, is incalculable”

As I have pointed out countless times on this site, technology is an essential part of our daily lives, indeed very few of us could now run our businesses or leisure time without it and it goes without saying that these technological advances have bought some very real benefits to the vehicles we drive as well, however at what cost? Have we reached a bridge too far? Toyota has, and most likely will, continue to be a brand known for its reliability and longevity, but why ever did it feel the need to switch from what was basically a tried and trusted idea, and more importantly one that worked, to something far more complicated and unreliable? Let me try and explain.

An insulated cable is attached one end to a throttle body by means of a circlip or other such basic procurement, at the other end the same cable passes through a similar attachment moulded to the back of what we know as a throttle pedal, connect this with other non complex type fittings to the clutch and brake pedals and hey presto we have a pedal box, simple, as used by manufacturers since “Henry Ford” sold that innovative black box with wheels to the masses way back when.

Then one day some bright spark in the Automotive Industry probably flew on an Air Bus A320 and not content with designing boot spoilers that automatically emerged out the back of your car when you went over 70mph, or seat belt buzzers that got louder and louder the more you tried to ignore them, he or she had the great idea of asking the captain of this great airliner how it actually flew? To which the proud Captain replied, “Fly by Wire, the designers have done away with all the cables and stuff and it’s simply marvellous! It’s all run by computers now, some day all planes will be built this way” (or words to that effect) and thus, an idea was born!

Toyota, along with many, if not all, manufacturers around the world now employ this system, there are no wires, there are very little components, it’s cheap and easy to install, just hook it up to one of the many reliable and cost effective ECU’s that control just about everything else on the vehicle and away we go, into a bright bold future, technology is great, technology is power, and perhaps most importantly, technology is profit, just as long as it doesn’t go wrong. But as Toyota are now finding out to the tune of $2 billion dollars it sometimes does!

Model T anyone?

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3 Responses to Toyota recalls, fly by wire and too much technology

  1. admin February 9, 2010 at 9:35 am #

    Via Twitter from @ToyotaPR “@in51der Please keep in mind accelerator pedal recall is a mechanical issue in the pedal lever, not an electronic one.”

  2. Ian Thompson February 9, 2010 at 1:31 pm #

    To be pedantic, it wasn’t a ‘pedal box’ on the Model T. Top Gear did an episode finding the first car built with what we have now and the Model T Ford had a very complicated transmission arrangement although it did have 3 pedals.

    The first car to have clutch, brake & throttle in the order we do now was the Cadillac 53 from 1916. It was adopted into the Austin 7 in the UK and the arrangement was used by all manufacturers.

  3. admin February 9, 2010 at 1:40 pm #

    Hi Ian,
    Not pedantic, good info.

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