Screaming Circuits: Modularity and Standards


Modularity and Standards

Eons ago, (well, it seems like eons) when IBM designed its original PC, it took note of the success of the Apple II with it's modular expansion system - easily accessible card slots with loads of clear documentation - and added its own variety of modular expansion system. By doing so, the cost of accessories to consumers stayed low, the cost of installing or replacing said accessories stayed low and a whole new industry emerged to create compatible accessories.

Apple II I just read a Twitter Tweet ("Tweet" sounds too cutesy to me, so I'm never quite sure what to call those; maybe a "Twoot"?) from Mike Buetow that linked to an article about the latest Toyota recall. It seems that there are a couple of specific solder joints prone to cracking in the ECM (Engine Control Module) of certain models.

The last time I had any real data on the cost to replace an ECM, it was on the order of $1,500. Just scanning around the Internet, I found numbers ranging from $1,000 to $2,000. I'm guessing (I am speaking from near complete ignorance) that maybe two or three hours of that are labor at $90/ hour. That's a lot of cost in the electronics as well as labor hours that can't be used for billable hours. With so much of new cars being electronic, this issue is only going to become more extreme.

So, why can't the auto industry take a cue from the PC industry. Create a standard, easily accessible, electrical bus with standard, easy to manipulate mechanical attributes. Even if they were just standard within each manufacturer, it would still be a big improvement.

Consider this scenario: Buy a Toyota mid-size-car ECM at the local auto parts store. Take it home, plug it into a USB port on your home computer. It auto-runs a link to a specific web site. Enter your car's VIN number and the site loads firmware that matches the ECM to your car. Take the ECM outside, open your hood, flip a few latches on the water-tight electronics box, pull the old one out and plug the new one in. There you go. Done.

Instead of what is pretty much a massively expensive dealer-only operation, you have half a dozen standard bus ECMs to choose from and about 15 minutes of work that's not much more difficult than installing a new printer on your PC. And, you'd have less expensive aftermarket options as well. And, a new industry would emerge to design and build those aftermarket options.

Duane Benson
Sadly, not in my lifetime, Batman...

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Comments

Eek - I suspect that in the real world, if we could re-configure/update cars like we can computers, then we could expect the same level of vulnerability and reliability (or, more precisely, lack thereof).

Sadly, idealism doesn't always hold up well in the face of reality.

I think batman has it. Having worked with RAMS (reliability, availability, maintainability and safety) Engineers I can just imagine the nightmare of preparing a safety case for user reconfigurable engine management.

In the end an engineer has to sign off that the car is safe. If the customer can delete and upload software as safety critical as modern ECU software I sure wouldn't want my name on that piece of paper.

The problem is the philosophy carried by the automakers. A car is not an extensible device, it is a product with a lifetime. Modularity has largely been an afterthought for most automakers, and is only used as a cost cutting measure.

... just because like that spare parts would be far less profitable... anyway just think about what could happen if someone could so easily load a (possibly wrong) firmware on his hood! There are several parameters that have to be carefully tuuned for each specific car model... I wouldn't do it myself even if I were able!

Google search "if cars were like computers" and you'll see why. ;)

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