Sunday, September 21, 2014

Are cars still cars or are they computers on wheels?

Cars are on my mind a lot this week with the replacement of my 10 year old Jeep with a new GMC Acadia. It is amazing to me how much cars have changed over the past 10 years. Today, cars are almost more of a computer system than the old hot rod Chevy that we all grew up with.

One of the earliest incursions of computers into cars came with the Chrysler Corporation's electronics division announcement back on May 15, 1984 that it has developed an electronic navigation system for cars. Using the old Navstar Satellite System a driver was able to pinpoint his car's location to within a city block, anywhere in the United States. To quote the New York Times article announcing the new advance.

“Chrysler engineers insisted the navigation system is not just a show-car gimmick. They say they are waiting for enough Navstar satellites to be launched to cover the United States, a step that probably will come in 1988. Chrysler then plans to offer the navigation system as an option. It is targeting a price of $500 or less.

Since computer chips are at the heart of the new systems, the car makers' plans mean hundreds of millions of dollars in sales for producers of integrated circuits. Indeed, the auto industry is already a major customer of companies such as the Intel Corporation, Motorola Inc. and the National Semiconductor Corporation for the electronics in models now available.”

What an understatement! In my new car, that little Intel microprocessor now not only controls navigation, but also the radio, air-conditioning/heating system, and the power plant operation even to the point where it makes a go/no decision as to whether or not to start. It keeps a record of engine operations for when problems arise. Almost all of our cars today have that plug in port where a diagnostics computer can read the car’s log and tell the technician what if anything is wrong. This is already paying off; my car sent me an e-mail to let me know that all four tires were under inflated the day the car was delivered. It seems that all the tires were carefully inflated by the dealer prep people to exactly 30 PSI when they should be inflated to 35 PSI. Does anyone have a spare bottle of nitrogen; it seems that air is now passé for filling tires.

Now, I am old “kick the tires and light the fires” kind of driver. I like to be able to make minor repairs such as replacing spark plugs. However, when I open the hood I can’t even see the sparkplugs. Not only that, but the engine is in sideways. The “front” end is now on the right side of the engine compartment. Actually, that makes some sort of sense. The Acadia like so many newer cars is a front wheel drive car. This is pretty cool as it provides for more traction on icy or wet roads. The old Jeep was rear wheel drive which made it possible to “burn rubber” just by turning the steering wheel to the right stop and hitting the accelerator. There is no universal joint in the front wheel drive cars because the engine, drive and drive axel are all lined up. Also way cool is the fact that there is no “hump” in the two rows of rear seats. No more “riding the hump!” I will not miss that. No more leaning over the side of the engine compartment or wiping grease off my cheek.

So, now when I jump in the car and turn on the ignition… wait, I can now turn on the ignition before even going outside. I can use the key-fob to do it or I can start it from my cell phone while still inside; no more getting into a hot or cold car when the weather is extreme. Don’t worry, you can start the car remotely but not drive it without the key which must be inserted within 5 minutes or the car will shut off. Anyway… when I start the car I can watch the computer boot itself, check all systems and present the display I chose. By time I am out of the driveway, using the backup camera that includes a computer generated graphic that tells me where the car is going from where I have the steering wheel set, the car has logged into the cell system with its own phone, linked to my cell phone via blue tooth and connected to the satellite system for navigation and Sirius-FM. Off I go with the 6 speaker sound system blasting out 50’s on 5, 60’s on 6, Internet or local radio, CD or a USB thumb drive. I am one truly connected dude riding my technology wave!

OK, so I can no longer easily change oil or replace a hose, spark plug or a fan belt. I have given all that up for a bunch of electronic wizardry. So what! I no longer relish the thought of sliding under the car to change the oil filter, or even looking forward to the next tire change. I’m getting a little too old for that. Oh MY!

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