Op-Ed: Manjoo Defends Your Car's Computers

Pontiac Tempest LeMans GTO i i

This 1964 Pontiac Tempest LeMans GTO featured a four-barrel carburetor. Carburetors have been obsolete for about 20 years, when fuel injection — which is controlled by a computer — became the preferred method. AP hide caption

itoggle caption AP
Pontiac Tempest LeMans GTO

This 1964 Pontiac Tempest LeMans GTO featured a four-barrel carburetor. Carburetors have been obsolete for about 20 years, when fuel injection — which is controlled by a computer — became the preferred method.

AP

If you drive a newer car, chances are it's controlled to a surprising extent by computers. Slate's technology columnist Farhad Manjoo says don't be afraid of the computers under the hood — they're far safer than most drivers.

In his piece, "I'm Sorry, Dave, I'm Afraid I Can't Make a U-Turn," Manjoo admits to his visceral reaction to the thought of software controlling cars. He was "terrified."

But ultimately, he told host Neal Conan, "we human beings are by far the most dangerous parts of our cars."

New technologies, he notes, can actually help make drivers drive more safely, by monitoring distances between cars, and controlling stability electronically.

Manjoo's all for more testing of the complex computer systems that run cars, and hopes that "better regimes for testing these computers" may be an outcome of the problems with Toyotas.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And now, the Opinion Page. Many cite the recent recall of over eight million Toyotas as the last straw in the evolution of the automobile. Once beloved mechanical devices that any teenager could happily tinker with, our cars - not just Toyotas, all our cars now pack as much processing powers as our PCs. And opening the hood of your Honda or your Ford is just as mindboggling as a as a peek at your motherboard.

In a piece for Slate, technology columnist Farhad Manjoo, someone who loves software and the expansion of computers into every facet of our lives, confesses he's terrified by the computerization of cars. If youve switched from an old car to a newer one, what difference does all this computerization make? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, where weve post a link to his column, you can go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Farhad Manjoo joins us now from KQED, our member station in San Francisco. Always nice to have you on the program.

Mr. FARHAD MANJOO (Technology Columnist, Slate.com): Great. Good to be here.

CONAN: And you put in your column that I'm not sure those we truly understand just how computerized our cars are.

MANJOO: Yeah. Many, many parts of cars now have software running various sort of subsystems in the cars. Software helps you open the doors, adjust your seats, start the ignition. There is software in the engine that's sort of constantly monitoring your fuel economy. And then the most revolutionary change is that there's basically software standing between you and other mechanical parts of the car.

So in the Prius, when you hit the brakes, there's a software system that actually applies the brakes and allows some of the brake the energy in your car to charge back the car's battery, you know...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MANJOO: ...its a hybrid, so it has a battery. And then many the recalled Toyota's and many other cars, they have something called electronic throttle control. So in old cars, there was a physical connection between you and the throttle. And no longer...

CONAN: Yeah, you pushed the pedal and it moved a lever which pulled a link in a chain, which opened a valve and everything happened.

MANJOO: Right. Exactly. Now that doesn't happen at all. Instead, you hit the pedal and it sends an electronic signal to the throttle and so there's and, you know, it's basically a computer standing between you and the car. And they're working on other systems that allow you to use - your steering wheel, but there wont be any steering column between you and the wheels, instead it'll sort of be just like how you steer a video game control pad. It'll send an electronic signal to a motor that will then turn the wheels to the right or the left.

CONAN: And of this well, we become accustomed to it in high-performance aircraft called fly-by-wire. This is drive-by-wire. There's no mechanical link to these things anymore. It's all computerized, which does some good things, but as you point out, well, this scares some people silly.

MANJOO: Yeah. You know, I you know, as you said, I use software all the time. I am I write about technology. I use technology, but kind of I have a visceral reaction to the computerization of our cars. And I'm terrified because and I think many people are. I mean, this is the problem weve seen in the Toyota recall. Toyota has identified several problems with the electronic throttle, but many people wonder if there are other problems, that there's sort of a computer problem that Toyota hasn't found. And, you know, the reason for that is because we use computers and we know from our use of computers that they're buggy, they break down all the time and...

CONAN: Unfortunate word, sometimes they crash.

MANJOO: Exactly. Yeah. And if it crashes in your car, it's a real crash. And the thing in software is, okay, we don't really understand it. I mean, people - everyone can understand kind of the mechanical, you know, a lever pulling another lever and gears moving together. But it takes, you know, it takes special training to understand how software works and how, you know, hitting the pedal will affect the electronic signal between you and the wheels.

CONAN: We should point out, Toyota still insists that the problems with the accelerators that made some of its cars unpredictable is mechanical and not electronic. That's a dispute, but that's what they say.

MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, and a lot of people don't believe that. And the reason, you know, people don't believe that is because we also know that software is hard to test. I mean, it's sort of like, you know, you take your car you take your computer in - your computer crashes and then you take it into a specialist computer store and they can't reproduce the error because, you know, you don't know the various combinations of things that can go on in a computer that cause it to crash. You can't repeat it easily. And that's what some people argue is happening in cars, in the electronic throttle and in other, you know, instances of computers in our cars.

CONAN: here's an email from Richard(ph) in Ann Harbor. Regarding computers operating cars, consider how long you can use a laptop or a PC without a hang or a crash or it's becoming slow and unresponsive, usually requiring the three-finger salute - control, alt, delete - or pulling the plug to recover. No, cars don't run Windows yet, but Microsoft is pushing a version for embedded - the term we use in the industry for processors that go into these things - applications.

If I were designing it, cars with electronic throttle control would have a kill switch that would shut off the ignition and fuel pump independently of the computer. Note that the traditional ignition switch does this, but Toyota's push button on/off switch requires the cooperation of the suspect computer.

Mr. MANJOO: Um, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANJOO: So that's the thing. I mean, you get - when you talk about how computers are embedded in our cars, you get all of these comments that suggests that it's really dangerous. But that's the thing, it's not. I think, you know, I - as I said, I'm, sort of, viscerally afraid of this, but I think that these fears, I have to say, are irrational. And with...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Glad you have them too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MANJOO: Right. And the reason they're irrational, I think, is because in many instances, the computers are running safety systems that make the cars safer. For example, electronic stability control, which is the system that can determine whether your tires are making contact and have good enough friction with the road and can apply the gas or brakes to each wheel independently to, you know, stop you from skidding.

This is something that no human being can, sort of, do in time enough to prevent a crash that computers can do really well. And the other thing to note about the question of whether computers should, sort of, sit between you and the tire should be, kind of, intervening in your - in how you drive, is that, you know, we human beings are by far the most dangerous parts of our cars.

We fail all the time in predictable, repeatable ways. You know, people talk about this problem of unintended acceleration in the Toyotas, but the far, far more dangerous problem is intended acceleration, when we drive too fast. And people do that all the time, people drive when they're intoxicated, when they're distracted.

And in many instances, the computers that carmakers are inventing are sitting in between the driver and the road to prevent some of these problems. There's a - there are new cruise control systems for example that can determine how far you are from the car in front of you and can automatically float, slow down your car, or I mentioned, electronic stability control.

And, you know, there are many more of these advances coming with these computerized cars that would make cars safer. And the way they make cars safer is by taking away control from we, very bad human drivers.

CONAN: Yes, but we, very bad human drivers, are also ornery independent people. We don't want the computer driving for us.

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, that's the irony here. We - the reason that we don't want computers driving for us is because we think we're better, we think we're in control. But the reason that we crash so often is because we think we're better. We think we can, you know, drive in conditions that are - you know, drive in certain ways and conditions that are unsafe. You know, we think we can drive when we've had too much to drink or when we're too sleepy or if it's raining outside, you drive too fast for the road conditions. I mean, people do this all the time and that's the major, you know, by far, the major reason that we have accidents.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We're talking with Farhad Manjoo about the computerization of our beloved cars. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And Latham(ph) joins us from Detroit.

LATHAM (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.

LATHAM: Yeah. I worked in the auto industry for about 43 years, and I've seen the evolution from control - power controls that were cable and basically a flapper valve, to electronics controls. And realistically, you know, I tend to agree that, you know, as far as dangerous driving, yes, that humans are their own worst enemy.

But realistically, there are problems with computers, you know? There's an electronic interference, magnetic interference, there's all kinds of interference that you can really, in a sense, impact a computer in a car with. So it's like - I'm not so sure that it's all human beings. I think that computers are so complex on cars that realistically, I think, we've gotten to a point where we really need now to guarantee that the computer doesn't fail. And that's really hard to do.

CONAN: You - Farhad, you cannot guarantee a computer will not crash.

LATHAM: Will not crash.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. MANJOO: That's true. I mean, it's...

LATHAM: A chip can get damaged...

CONAN: Right.

LATHAM: ...in multiple ways, moisture, I mean, it's on and on and on. So, I mean, as far as I'm concerned, in the last 40 years, I agree that the computer has given us a lot better gas mileage, it's given us very -a way of monitoring the brake controls so that you have, you know, a situation where you don't have brakes that will lock up infinitely. But, realistically, if you ask me, I, in a sense, believe that computers are overdone. We've done probably too much.

CONAN: Farhad?

Mr. MANJOO: I mean, I think he's right. The computers - I think he's right about one part of it, which is that we can't guarantee that a computer in a car won't fail, and there are many, you know, ways for extremely complex systems to fail and that's one of the costs of making cars more complex is, sort of, that you're introducing more unknowns into the system. On the other hand, these computers in cars are, you know, rigorously tested. And if one of the outcomes of the tough problems with the Toyota recall is we have more testing, that would be, you know, all the better if we have better, kind of, more regulation and better regimes for testing these computers.

I mean, I think it's a good outcome if we, sort of, all recognize that our cars are changing in radical ways and that we need, you know, we need to recognize this as a potential problem. On the other hand, I mean, I think that we have to also recognize that at the same time that we've added computers to cars, they've gotten much safer and more reliable. I mean, newer cars are much safer, and you need to take them into the mechanic far less often than you used to.

And that's, you know, one of the rewards of making cars more complex -they run better, they have better fuel economy, and, you know, we all want that, we all love that about our cars these days. I mean, I think most people do. So, you know, it's sort of a tradeoff, but I think that it's a good tradeoff.

CONAN: Latham, thanks for the call. Appreciate it.

LATHAM: Yeah.

CONAN: We're talking with Farhad Manjoo of Slate.com about our cars and how much computer's power there is in there, and how little we understand of it. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And this email from Morgan(ph): battery was dead this morning. I don't even know where the battery is located to charge it. Farhad, you open the hood and what used to be a somewhat comprehensible machine now looks like - completely sealed in plastic.

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah. I mean, that's the other part of making cars more complex is that fewer and fewer of us understand how to fix it. I mean, people who tinker with cars nowadays tinker with old cars, because new cars are just, you know, far too complex to understand and that, you know, you take it in to the dealer and they connect it up to a computer to figure out what's going on with it.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MANJOO: So, you know, that's - but that's sort of true, you know, with every part of life. I mean, everything is getting more complex. And, you know, many of the gadgets...

CONAN: I used to understand my phone, too.

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah, exactly. You know, people used to be able to take apart a radio and figure out how it worked, but...

CONAN: They shouldn't do that. That's totally unsafe. Just leave it on this station forever.

Mr. MANJOO: Yeah.

CONAN: Let's go next to Jeff(ph). And Jeff's with us from Port Huron in Michigan.

JEFF (Caller): Yes, I was - I just upgraded a couple of years ago to a new car. I was amazed at how much the truck tells me. It can tell me what song I'm listening to, whether the turn signal was left on, all of that. And then when I had a low tire, it was like - it was telling me that I had a low tire. But with all the stuff it could tell me, it couldn't tell me what tire was low.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, you still had to get one of those little devices and stick it in your - in the tire to find out which one was low?

JEFF: Yes.

CONAN: Well...

JEFF: You know, you would think with all of this computer circuitry, okay, it can tell me which tire is low. It can tell me when I need an oil change, but it couldn't tell me, you know, which of the four tires was low. I had to either get a tester or wait until it got low enough to be able to actually see which one was low.

CONAN: All right, Jeff. Thanks very much for the call, safe driving. Here's an email from Tom(ph). It is possible to build safe software. Though it's hard, airplanes have a very complicated computer systems and have low rates of failure. However, it's clear from looking at cars so far, car software is built to a lesser standard. This does not prove that car software is dangerous, but it suggests a higher risk. Would you agree with that?

Mr. MANJOO: I think that it's true that it's not as, you know, they're not as rigorously tested as the software in airplanes. And we should note that airplanes have a lot of software, as the caller - as the emailer said, they have low failure. It's - I mean, talk about very complex machines. I think, though, that, you know - so this suggests that - not that we should get rid of the software in our cars, but that we should probably increase the testing. And I think what we're going to see actually over time is probably more and more software in our cars and we're going to get used to it.

You know, I, for one, would like there to be more software. You know, many of the problems we have these days with cars is that people are distracted by, you know, their electronic gadgets while they're driving their cars. So the solution to that, some people say, is to pass laws to stop them from doing it. But I doubt that those laws are going to be effective. I think that a better solution is to have, you know, the cars be able to say when to, sort of, detect when you're driving erratically or when you're distracted in a certain way, or perhaps when you're too sleepy, and to slow down your car or call the authorities or prevent you from being so dangerous. I mean, I would love it if other unsafe drivers had those technologies in their cars.

CONAN: Well, there's another question we didn't address from an earlier caller. All the electronic interference - we hear about cell phones in airplanes. Nevertheless, is it also possible to hack into a car computer and cause trouble?

Mr. MANJOO: We haven't heard of that happening yet. And it seems that, you know, many - so far at least, the cars that are - the computers that are in your cars aren't networked and aren't, you know, plugged in to the Internet, and there's no kind of way for someone to get into your car from afar.

I don't doubt that in the future, you know, we will have kind of more connected cars. But, you know, it's certainly possible to prevent those kinds of things from happening, if engineers put some thought into it. But we may see problems along those lines. I mean, that's sort of the inevitable - what happens in technology. You get these little bugs and then you fix them.

CONAN: Farhad Manjoo's piece in Slate is titled "I'm Sorry, Dave, I'm Afraid I Can't Make a U-Turn." He concludes it by writing: Sure, it's unnerving that a computer is now running my car, but I'm sure glad it's running yours.

So, I look forward to your email, Farhad. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. MANJOO: Great. Thanks. Good to be here.

CONAN: Farhad Manjoo joined us from our member station in San Francisco, KQED. And he's, of course, a technology columnist with Slate.com. Tomorrow, most of us have experienced diversity training. Does it make any difference? Plus, the unlikely relationship between a former Gitmo guard and one of his former detainees, join us for that.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION, NPR News in Washington.

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