We form opinions quickly these days and increasingly we gravitate toward those who agree with us and tune out opposing arguments. It happens with political and social issues and it’s happening with Toyota as the company struggles to determine the cause(s) of unintended acceleration. Some have empathy while others delight in the company’s difficulties.
One problem with polarization is that details can be lost in the emotion. As I see it, Toyota believes that the cause of the problem is mechanical, and not electrical, but it is continuing to explore all possibilities, including electrical/electronic hardware/software. It’s in Toyota’s interests to project confidence, but it also has to expect the unexpected, and it’s under intense time pressure.
Whether Toyota’s unintended acceleration problem involves electrical and electronic design issues or not, I see it contributing to a cloud of suspicion that is hovering over automotive electronics. Electronics in cars is perceived, at least by some people, as dangerous stuff. Thanks to electronics, it’s difficult if not impossible for individuals to tinker with their vehicles – not like in the old days. And electronics equates to computers, which conjures up images of inexplicable crashes and “blue screens of death.” Paradoxically, we want to be safe, but don’t know whom or what we can trust.
Are there ways to make automotive electronics less threatening? It helps that the vast majority of experiences that individuals have with in-vehicle electronics – GPS, for example – are positive. GM consistently stresses the safety and security benefits of OnStar. Ford touts SYNC’s voice control, so drivers can keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. And Ford just announced security features to guard against identity or data theft.
But what about electronics under the hood? Has anyone seen an especially good presentation of vehicle control electronics aimed at non-engineers? Is it possible to make the technology understandable, and is there a benefit to doing so?