When we were kids, we were told to wish for things. Imagine it, pray for it – and it might be so. At the genie’s whim, of course.
New cars work a lot like that. You have very little physical control over its workings.
Instead you have wireless control.
Which really means: The computer controls the workings of your car.
For example, “drive by wire,” which almost all new cars have and most cars made during the past five years or so, too. Instead of a physical cable connecting the gas pedal to the throttle, it’s all done electronically – by wire.
Actually, by sensors.
You push down on the gas pedal and the system uses these sensors to register the depression of the pedal and the computer signals the throttle to open to the appropriate degree.
This is done for several reasons, among them packaging. During the car’s assembly, it is easier to just plug things in rather than have to manually install and adjust a cable. No need to feed a cable through the firewall, then hook one end to a throttle arm and the other end to the gas pedal.
It also eliminates production variances; the possibility of one car’s accelerator pedal feel having slightly different feel than another identical car – same year/model/make – because the throttle tension of car “a” was adjusted a bit looser or a bit tighter than the cable of car “b” right behind it on the assembly line.
The car manufacturers operate on the same principle as McDonald’s. A Bic Mac ought to taste exactly the same, whether you’re eating one at a restaurant in New York – or LA.
The downside – when it comes to drive by wire – is you’ve just made a simple thing very complex – and also something that can’t easily be fixed by the side of the road (unlike a snapped throttle cable).
Also, the drivetrain is now much less under your control. The computer decides how much throttle will be allowed and can (and does) back off or even shut off the throttle, for various reasons, none of which you get any say in.
Or the other thing (wait).
It also takes time – perhaps only fractions of a second – for the computer to interpret data and then trigger a response to it. This is why some new cars are afflicted by a kind of turbo lag, except it’s not caused by the turbo. You floor the gas and – for a noticeable fraction of a moment – nothing happens. It is during this fraction of a moment that the computer is deciding how much to open the throttle and then commanding it to do so.
A physical throttle cable delivers instant response (assuming no actual turbo lag). You are in full control of how much the throttle opens – and when.
Problems are also easy to identify – and cheap to fix. The cable is either connected and tensioned correctly or not. You can see (and feel) it. If you need to replace it, all you need is a cable – and even stealerships can only charge so much for a cable.
Or, make one. Rig one. See earlier point about by-the-side-of-the-road repairs. Very doable with a cable.
With drive-by-wire, you’re dealing with inscrutable (and several) electronic components, all of which require special tools and abilities to deal with, can’t be rigged or made and which you will pay the stealership a pile of money to replace, if that needs to be done. Meanwhile, you are stuck by the side of the road.
With drive-by-wire, there is also the possibility of run-away acceleration, accidentally and intentionally – though not by you. The computer decides to “floor it” (the pedal no longer needs to be actually floored) and off you go.
Or, a hacker tells the computer to floor it – and off you go.
This has happened – and when it does, there is very little you can do, precisely because there is no longer any physical connection between the gas pedal and the throttle, now entirely under the control of the computer (or whomever controls the computer).
This is a vulnerability physical cables aren’t vulnerable to. If the cable gets stuck, you could reach down and pull the gas pedal back up – and get the racing engine under control.
But many new cars also have drive-by-wire transmission control. When you move the selector from Park to Drive, you are triggering sensors which feed data to a computer, which sends the appropriate signal, causing actuators to actuate and gears to be engaged.
If the data is correct and the computer isn’t having a conniption fit. If it is . . . it may not shift out of Park no matter how earnestly you rotate the dial or tap the toggle.
The computer is programmed to do what it thinks best – not do as it’s told by you. In a car with a physical (cable/rods) gear selector system, you and only you control what range the transmission is in.
With drive-by-wire gear selection, the computer overrides you.
A drive-by-wire transmission can also be hacked – unless it’s a manual; that’s your failsafe. But manual transmissions are getting harder and harder to find in new cars. Whole categories of vehicle (1500 series trucks, almost all mid-size and all full-size sedans) are automatic-only.
They are also working on drive-by-wire steering. And brakes. Total physical separation of the driver from the controls. De facto computer control over the entire car.
There is of course the ignition key – to just turn the engine off.
Well, there was.
Almost all 2019 cars come with keyless ignition – which is effectively drive-by-wire ignition. Sensors register a button being pushed and the computer tells the starter motor to turn the engine on.
Unlike a keyed ignition, which gives you absolute physical control over whether the engine is on or off, keyless ignition (the computer which controls it) may decide not to turn off the engine, even if you are frantically pressing the button – perhaps because the throttle is running amok and the car is speeding out of control.
This can – and does – happen. I know because I’ve tested it out on dozens of brand-new keyless ignition cars.
Sometimes the engine will obediently shut off. But sometimes, not. Sometimes there is a delay while the computer masticates over what to do. In an emergency situation – one in which seconds matter – that could be decisive.
And not in your favor.
Keyless ignition is part of the burgeoning world of automated driving. And like everything else that’s controlled by the computer – a computer accessible to others not in the car via such things as “vehicle to vehicle” (V2V) interconnectedness – has a mind of its own. And that mind can be hacked.
Hunter Thompson used to say, buy the ticket – take the ride. Indeed. But in this case, the ticket’s been purchased for us – without our even really being aware of it – and the stub quietly placed in our pockets.
The ride comes next.
. . .
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