Saturday, September 25, 2010

Techno overkill

The other day I drove a friend and a mountain of luggage to her destination in her new car. On the way back to her place I decided to top up the tank; there was enough fuel to get the car home but I know that my friend doesn't enjoy fuel stops and would be pleased to see that the tank was full. So I pulled into a busy petrol station during evening rush hour.

I was immediately confronted with an insurmountable problem, however: I couldn't figure out how to open the fuel filler door. None of the numerous buttons opened the door, which had no visible lock on it. Under pressure from the car that had pulled up behind and not wanting to look like a complete idiot I started the car and drove it home.

My friend later had a good laugh about this as she too couldn't figure out the seemingly simple task of opening the fuel filler door and had to consult the owner's manual. It turns out the door is integrated into the cars electronic systems and all one need do is push the door to unlatch it. To prevent fuel theft the car automatically locks the door 10 minutes after the ignition is turned off.

In the 1970s I owned a car with one of the early electronic ignitions. The car one night unexpectedly stopped dead with no spark to the plugs. The car was towed to the nearest dealer, the head mechanic telling me the next day that the car worked fine and didn't need to be repaired. A few days later the car again stopped dead and was towed to the dealer. And again when checked by the mechanic the car worked just fine.

This cycle repeated a few times, causing quite a bit of strife: I had a car that was virtually useless but the dealer was really annoyed at the cost of repeatedly investigating what appeared to be an imaginary problem. Luckily I knew a mechanic at another dealership. I explained the problem to him and he took the car in for service with a thorough check showing the car to be in proper working order. But to be sure the mechanic took the car for a long drive, taking spare ignition parts with him just in case. Sure enough the car stopped and would not start. The mechanic started replacing various parts, after replacement trying to restart the car. It was eventually figured out that the ignition's electronic unit malfunctioned when it heated up through use and started working again when it cooled down. If the car hadn't been under warranty this would have cost me a fortune.

The electronic systems in today's cars are really great but I can't help but wonder what happens if they malfunction. For example, my welder recently stopped working due to a fault in its one and only circuit board. The problem was very easily fixed but a new board was more than half the cost of the welder. Luckily an electronics technician was able to fix the board cheaply and the welder now works. But such a fix wouldn't be possible for a car's elaborate electronic systems – the welder's circuit board only had maybe six components on it.

Maybe it's just a sign that I'm getting old but I reckon everything from cars to toasters is suffering from techno overkill.


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