Despite Glitches, Electronics Make Cars Safer Toyota's recent recalls have caused drivers to question the electronic components that control their vehicles. But experts say that overall, these systems make cars safer and more reliable, and that sophisticated electronics are just the latest step in the evolution of the automobile.
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Despite Glitches, Electronics Make Cars Safer

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Despite Glitches, Electronics Make Cars Safer

Despite Glitches, Electronics Make Cars Safer

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And all these recalls can make you wonder if a design or manufacturing flaw is about to be announced for your wheels.

NPRs Joe Palca has this look at the safety of cars built with complicated electronic components.

JOE PALCA: We want cars that dont pollute. We want cars that are fuel efficient. But do all the fancy electronics needed to squeeze 40 or 50 miles out of a gallon of gas mean weve compromised on safety?

Mr. SIMON WASHINGTON (Safe Transportation Research and Education Center): Absolutely not. There's no silver bullet in that there's no perfect solution for making cars completely safe and (unintelligible) fuel efficient.

PALCA: Thats Simon Washington. He is director of the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center at the University of California, Berkley. He says when carmakers are faced with tradeoffs between safety and fuel economy, safety typically wins. But Washington says the reliance on electronic sensors and computer code presents new challenges to car designers. For example, for more than two decades, engineers have known there are instances when nearby radio transmitters can cause problems for a car's electronics. Washington says it's a problem that's been solved.

Mr. WASHINGTON: It's a matter of finding out what they are, and then reprogramming and reconfiguring the electronic components.

PALCA: Sometimes a little extra shielding is necessary. But Washington says carmakers do an excellent job of protecting a car's electronic components. And the way cars are designed, if a critical electronic component does fail, a mechanical system will still be there. Take anti-lock braking systems. A computer tells the brakes the best way to stop the car.

Professor PAUL KUBAN (University of Southern Indiana): The brakes will function without the computer.

PALCA: Paul Kuban is an engineering professor at the University of Southern Indiana. They won't function as well because anti-lock braking systems on average do better stopping a car than most human drivers. But they will function.

Prof. KUBAN: It's gotten to the point where it's hard to separate the mechanical and the electrical designs, because they interact with each other.

PALCA: So a car like the Toyota Prius hybrid is just the next step in a future that's moving toward cars with more electronics, more robotic-type control systems systems that can analyze driving conditions and act accordingly.

In fact, people are already developing autonomous cars - cars that can drive themselves. Sebastian Thrun is one of those people. He's a computer scientist at Stanford University. He says today's cars have begun to use the technology that will someday lead to driverless cars. He understands that the reliance on such automated electronic systems can make people nervous.

Professor SEBASTIAN THRUN (Stanford University): You feel that there's a systematic failure mode, that machines have a systematic bug that might actually cause a lot of harm. In reality, however, the statistics don't really justify this.

PALCA: Thrun says only a tiny fraction of all accidents are caused by problems with the car, and most of those are related to tire failures. The vast majority occur because a human driver did something wrong or simply got distracted.

Prof. THRUN: That's where machines are great. They have amazing reliability to just do the same task over and over again.

PALCA: And do it without any desire to send a text message or put on makeup while traveling at 60 miles an hour. Red Whittaker of Carnegie Mellon is an expert in robotic systems. He says cars with sophisticated electronics are just the latest step in the evolution of the automobile.

Professor RED WHITTAKER (Carnegie Mellon): It doesn't matter whether it's first hydraulic brakes or first power steering or first automated braking or first tip-over stability control. At first, there will be tremendous suspicion, there will be great concern.

PALCA: But then the concern will give way to appreciation. Drivers will come to expect new cars to include technologies that make it easier to navigate while driving, steer with minimal effort, and stop quickly on slippery roads.

Prof. WHITTAKER: And at some point, it's actually unsafe to be driving at the higher speeds on modern highways without some of those features.

PALCA: Sure, there will be glitches - car recalls are common - but engineers say overall things are safer, and statistics appear to bear them out.

Joe Palca, NPR News, Washington.

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