Attack of the Robot Cars

By on July 6, 2004

How comfortable are you with some of the new high-tech features on today’s cars? Looking over some of the posts on Automotive Forums, some newer cars are creating serious problems for their owners, and sometimes getting them injured. Range Rovers with electrically adjustable suspensions going flat at high speeds, Toyotas with electronic throttles that accellerate out of control, BMW’s that die suddenly on the highway…

What you have now are a lot of first-generation systems. Automakers feel compelled to deliver bleeding-edge stuff, and it doesn’t always work out. But given that the shift to electronics is unavoidable, the challenge is to make these systems more user-friendly.



  1. I totally agree. Here’s an example of my thinking:

    There’s always been a nagging push in automotive R & D to get rid of the steering wheel. If you think about it, putting both your hands on the steering wheel is a very un-natural position, and we all know it can get tiring for long drives.

    One alternative I saw on the Discovery Channel the other night was to replace the steering wheel with a little joystick on the center console. It looked wonderful. You sat in the driver’s seat with both arms on contour armrests, head back against the headrest, and this little joystick just fell right into your hand. It looked so comfortable that I think I’d be at risk of going to sleep.

    However, since you have much less leverage with just your right forearm compared to having both arms on the steering wheel, there was total power assist and drive-by-wire. The wheels were actually turned by electric motors, and this joystick just controlled those motors electronically.

    Now, what happens when there’s an electrical failure, or a software bug (or worse, a software virus), or some other problem that elminates the power assist and electronic control? You. Are. Screwed.

    Yes, the steering wheel is a pain, but if the engine quits and I lose power assist, I still have a physical, mechanical link to the front wheels and I can still wrestle the car in a safe direction.

    By contrast, if something goes wrong with the joystick, you’re done for. Even if it wasn’t drive-by-wire, and just used total power assist, you still wouldn’t be able to muster enough force with just your right forearm to steer the car.

    I cringe whenever I hear “drive-by-wire.” God willing, I’ll never drive a car that has this.

  2. Fly-by-wire is used pretty regularly in aircraft, where it makes sense; there you’ve got control surfaces that are sometimes hundreds of feet from the pilot and eliminating mechanical linkages will save a lot of weight. And weight savings there makes a huge difference in how much cargo can be carried. But in a car you’re only talking about a few feet; the only thing you’d be gaining by using drive-by-wire is a step up in the cool factor, and to me it’s just not worth the risk.

    Also, aircraft controls have redundancy on top of rendundancy, along with a maintenance crew to make sure the systems all work the way they’re designed to work. Not necessarily the case with your average car, no matter the price. Could you imagine the nightmare on the roads when early drive-by-wire machines start falling apart, are selling for $500, and get as much maintenance as a 1985 Dodge? Duct tape and bailing wire.

  3. If your tv and sound player and other electronics can be reliable every day for more than 10 years cant the same be true for car electronic control ?

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