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Column: The digital demon within

2010-01-20 06:56

Despite all the endurance testing money can buy, would you take your Veyron into the desert for some dirt-drifting like this?

Lance Branquinho

Digisation has, for the most part, been a happy state of affairs for all of us.

Can you imagine life without the raft of current disruptive telecommunication technologies (Skype prominent among these)? Or doing without pixel imaging and broadcasting?

We even have fridges with internet browsing (preventing embarrassing culinary errors of judgement) and my personal favourite - the self check-in counter at airports.

Digitisation has made life busier, yet more rewarding too.

Cars and sparks - not good

Cars though, have not been quite the happy marriage to digisation as teenagers and the iPod. The car, you see, is not the best of environments for a treasure trove of electronics.

Heat, dust and moisture are the death knell for most electronic devices – as anybody who has ever gone taken a digital camera system into the Kalahari, or gone swimming with their cellphone, can attest.

Cars, when running, generate a surfeit of heat and operate in conditions of dust and moisture with challenging regularity – especially in South Africa. Obviously you can see a problem germinating here…

The iPod, as seen in this Volvo application, is usually for life. Most modern cars though, with their electronic gremlins, are most certainly not...

Error code unhappiness

It all galvanised to reality for me recently.

After a brisk run to a friend’s vacation home for the weekend in hot weather, a bubble-wrap residue new test car went into limp-mode and pointedly refused to start. Lovely.

There was enough power to light up the instrumentation and volume the infotainment system, yet starting was out of the question. This unhappy state of affairs was confirmed by the error code displayed between the engine and road speed dials.

I was hugely unimpressed. It was a spectacularly inviting spring day though, and I busied myself instead with walking across the beach to the water’s edge for surf, content with the though of worrying about my test car’s electronic gremlins later.

Admittedly, if the same scenario had to befall me in the middle of the Moordenaars Karoo, I would probably have thrown a vloermoer of epic proportions…

Post surf, I set about my immobility problem. As the car was brand new, with a healthy battery (all the cabin electrics were operational) and full tank of the correct fuel, all I could hope was disconnecting the battery for a moment would reset all ECU parameters to default.

Armed with a friend’s Leatherman I loosened the battery connections, opened it up, and then reconnected. With the bonnet still raised I jumped into the driver’s seat, depressed the clutch, fastened my seatbelt (start-up regulations for modern cars are becoming a bit ridiculous, not aren’t they?) and feathered the throttle pedal as I swung the key.

The engine spluttered into life, and I was filled with a sense of relief. Was it really just a loose battery connection which had rendered the ECU to incapacitate this car? Or was there a more malevolent electronic gremlin afoot?

If you need to get something from A-to-B quickly in Africa, you are probably best off with something like this, instead of a European sourced, turbodiesel panelvan.

First world design, third world applicability

It’s upsetting, really.

I have often sat through product presentations on new car launches and studied pictures of fatigued test teams on power point presentations. Product specialists always boast of the extreme electronic fatigue testing which has been done.

Now, it’s all fine and well testing specific electronic components to destruction by expert engineers who travel with considerable back-up.

It's all rather useless though, when the production engineers and design integration teams are unable to put it all together properly in the cars which run down the production-line to you and me...

I don’t think component manufacturers are really at fault here either. Most are impeccable in their technical expertise. It’s when car makers set about producing a model with an immensurable level of peculiarly procured and integrated electronics when things go awry.

Not much to go wrong here...

Old-school is cool(er)?

Makes one miss the old days, doesn’t it?

My first car was a simple breaker points and carburettor fed bakkie. Absolutely foolproof car. Hardly safe by modern standards though.

It was pretty theft-proof too.

When I set course for the more notorious regions of town for a Friday night’s worth of bar-and-darts entertainment there was no sense of foreboding about parking my bakkie kerbside. I just popped the bonnet open, undid the distributor’s holding clips, twisted out the rotor (which went into my pocket) and dropped the bonnet shut again.

If you wanted to steal said bakkie you had better have a loadbed truck at the ready, because it wasn’t going anywhere under its own power. Show me a modern car with comparable security simplicity and reliability…

Which leads to a rather peculiar conclusion.

There are times, when my fellow media colleagues dissuade all and sundry from buying emerging market cars - or classy early 1990s family runabouts - with their seemingly antiquated technology, that I have second thoughts.

I find myself wondering if, at times, the old technology was not always such a bad thing…Or perhaps I just want Apple to build an iCar….


Bullet: Name, set and match!

2012-04-16 16:47

Inside Wheels24

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