back to article The moment a computer crash nearly caused my car crash

I very nearly had a terrible car accident: my car almost left me stranded on the tracks of my city's light rail transit. The short version of the story is that my car started acting up, of all times, as I was on the way to the mechanic for an oil change. “Acting up” in this case meant refusing to go above 20kph (12.4mph) for …


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  1. b166er

    It's a straight trade-off as I see it, between the number of casualties/fatalities/near misses that used to occur in cars without all the extra safety equipment, versus the same criteria when considering cars fitted with all the safety gear.

    I personally think we should go back to dumb cars and improve the practical driving test.

    (You don't need ABS/Traction Control/Lane Departure Warning, if you're driving correctly)

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      ABS is pretty handy, I can't manage the same barking distances without ABS, certainly not in the kind of situations where I actually need to slow down quickly.

      (I've never owned a car with ABS mind, just driven a few)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        > I can't manage the same barking distances

        Get a bigger dog?

      2. Lee Dowling Silver badge

        I think the point of the OP was that if you need ABS, you're driving too fast / close in the first place anyway. Driving skill and common sense trumps technology any time.

        That said, ABS *can* outperform a top driver in braking, but not by much, and certainly not on certain surfaces (which it has no way to detect, like gravel). But then, so would just driving slightly slower.

        1. Oliver Mayes

          @Lee Dowling

          "if you need ABS, you're driving too fast / close in the first place anyway"

          You've obviously never driven onto a patch of black ice and felt the ABS kick in to prevent you from gliding at 5 mph into the van in front of you who has just stopped to let someone out.

          1. Lee Dowling Silver badge

            On ice, ABS generally performs no better than a skilled driver. If you don't know how to drive in icy conditions, you probably shouldn't drive on them. For a start, you should NOT be gliding into the vans in front of you (insufficient braking distance, ice or not, ask your insurers) especially if you know to release and reapply the brakes repeatedly in the absence of ABS (in the way everyone was taught to before ABS became standard - but DON'T try it on an ABS car unless you're in gravel or loose earth, where ABS fails miserably) rather than hold it down and hope for the best. Hell, even with ABS usually the best path is to not lock the wheels if you can help it but steer gently away. This pumping or ABS only allows the wheel to regain traction which you can then use to slow yourself further until the wheel skids again. ABS does nothing more than this, it just does it for you and slightly faster.

            And, actually, I've hit black ice on motorways several times and watched everyone else careen off the road because they weren't watching in front where all the other cars did the same and either glided to a halt behind them (and ABS cars make a horrible grinding feel when you do that on such a surface) or driven calmly past them while holding the steering wheel for dear life. It's not fun, but it's also not entirely unpreventable in most circumstances.

            Spot loss of control of vehicle, release throttle, MAYBE apply brake (depends on circumstances), MAYBE pump brake (depends on car and circumstances), steer ever-so-gently. But ice doesn't magically form on roads with no warning of outside temperatures - I'm not saying you'll *see* it but you're expected to take notice of the possibility of it.

            Now, if you'd said "oil spill", I'd be much more inclined to agree with you.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Bollox to ABS!

              Don't talk to me about ABS! I've just shelled out £1100 to have replaced a piece of electro-hydraulics associated with the ABS and traction control system I've never needed to use and, with careful driving should never have to. It wasn't even classed as "show stopping safety" so you might reasonably ask 'Why did you do it?'. 'Cos my wife uses the car more than me and I value her life very highly.

              The added technology, without doubt, saves lives and improves drivability for some but at what capital, maintenance and fuel cost to the majority? The biggest safety aid not fitted to cars is a large red-coloured foam rubber spike located in the centre of the steering wheel. A pointed reminder to drive safely.

              I'd pay good money to have most of these safety features on the options list so I could select to delete them.

              1. Pete Smith 2

                Don't forget:

                On many modern cars, the ABS replaces the brake proportioning valve. This stops the rear brakes receiving too much pressure. If they have full load, the back end can lock up and put you in a spin.

                These used to be physical devices which limited pressure.

                These days (I'm led to believe) the ABS system takes care of that.

                If you've not got it - fine. If you've got it, but it's broken, it could be dangerous.

                1. Vic

                  > the ABS replaces the brake proportioning valve.

                  Not on any car I've ever looked at. It would be a serious mistake.

                  The ABS system is designed to disable itself in the event of any failure (e.g. a few iron filings on the sensor). It would be madness to design a braking system that is seriously compromised in the event of an ABS shutdown.


                  1. Stacy


                    I can't beleive that in this day and age there is still so much ignorance surrounding ABS...

                    It does not stop you faster in a straight line - in fact it increases the distance from stopping without locking the wheels in the first place. It works by releasing and reapplying the brakes when the wheels stop turning so that you still have control over your car to (as a couple of others have said) to steer around the obstacle rather than careening into the back of it.

                    Learning how your car reacts on different road surfaces and knowing how hard to hit the brakes in an emergency will improive your stopping distances.

                    And in my experience it fails on ice... It does 'work' but it doesn't slow you down as the grip just isn't there before you start. Using winter tyres (not an option in the UK due to the stupid insurance companies I know) has a much bigger impact on stopping distances in wintery conditions than the ABS.

                    And no I don't think I am Dancia Patrick, and yes I have had the front end of my car saved on one occasion by the ABS kicking in and allowing me to keep control. But it isn't something I try to rely on!

                    I think the saftey systems on modern cars are great (look at the falling death rates on the roads) but people do need to realise that it is not an excuse to drive 1m from the car in front...

                    1. Vic

                      > I can't beleive that in this day and age there is still so much ignorance surrounding ABS...

                      I would concur with that.

                      > It does not stop you faster in a straight line

                      Yes it does.

                      Go to a skid pan and try it - make sure you know which fuse to pull before you get there.

                      If you're a *very* good driver, you'll get reasonably close to the ABS stopping distance (but not beat it). And you'll get signed by McLaren. We mere mortals go a lot further.

                      > in fact it increases the distance from stopping without locking the wheels in the first place.

                      If you don't lock your wheels, your ABS system does *nothing at all*. It doesn't make any difference whatsoever to an unlocked wheel. So your stopping distance, if you don't lock the wheels, is absolutely 100% identical.

                      If, however, you *do* lock the wheels, then the ABS does something: it unlocks the wheel. This means that you can get some retardation from the wheel, rather than just sliding across the road. This *dramatically* shortens the stopping distance.

                      > Learning how your car reacts on different road surfaces and knowing how hard to hit the

                      > brakes in an emergency will improive your stopping distances.

                      Perhaps. But ABS isn't there for when you do everything completely right - it's there to pick up the pieces when you make a mistake. Have you ever made a mistake? I certainly have.

                      > And in my experience it fails on ice...

                      That is because you fundamentally do not understand what ABS does.

                      > It does 'work' but it doesn't slow you down as the grip just isn't there before you start.

                      Even imagining that ABS might generate grip that isn't there shows just how little you understand the technology.

                      Please - go to a skid pan and *learn*.


                      1. Stacy

                        @Vic - please re-read my post...

                        >If you don't lock your wheels, your ABS system does *nothing at all*. It doesn't make any difference whatsoever to an unlocked wheel. So your stopping distance, if you don't lock the wheels, is absolutely 100% identical.

                        >If, however, you *do* lock the wheels, then the ABS does something: it unlocks the wheel. This means that you can get some retardation from the wheel, rather than just sliding across the road. This *dramatically* shortens the stopping distance.

                        That's exactly what I was saying!!!!!! ABS releases the brakes to allow the wheels to rotate, this allows them to regain tracktion. Then the brakes are reapplied until they lock again. Repeat as required. The same as with manual cadence braking, just much, much faster than a human can achieve. Obviously skidding to a stop takes longer than using ABS, but then braking just short of the the point of where the ABS is needed will be better still as your brakes will never be released (at that point you are not slowing down as your brakes are not applied).

                        >Perhaps. But ABS isn't there for when you do everything completely right - it's there to pick up the pieces when you make a mistake. Have you ever made a mistake? I certainly have

                        I beleive that I said ABS had saved the front end on my car. I'm human (last time I chekced) so yes I make mistakes.

                        >Even imagining that ABS might generate grip that isn't there shows just how little you understand the technology.

                        Again, that is exactly what I was saying. When you try to stop on sheet ice the ABS works perfectly, but the the grip just an't there for it to be efective. And this can happen even at tiny speeds. I never said it would generate grip. In fact I said exactly the opposite.

                        What I said is that correct winter tyres help more in the winter than relying on ABS to stop you...

                        So yes, I do have an inderstanding of how it works, and I also know that if I ever use it (not often) then it means I have put myself into a stupid situation where I've had to jam the brakes on too hard.

                        1. Vic

                          >>This *dramatically* shortens the stopping distance.


                          > That's exactly what I was saying!!!!!!

                          Nope. What you said was :

                          >> It does not stop you faster in a straight line

                          And it does.

                          > then braking just short of the the point of where the ABS is needed will be better still

                          You have that sort of control, do you? With wheels on different surfaces?

                          Maximum retardation depends somewhat on the tyre in question, but for most tyres, it is achieved when the tyre is *just* starting to slip. And that''s what you get from ABS.


                      2. Anonymous Coward
                        Anonymous Coward

                        Vic; I think you're being a bit pedantic. It makes no difference to straight-line braking at all if you do not lock the wheels. That covers 99% of braking situations.

                        If you're not a skilled driver and lock the brakes, or are a skilled driver who for some reason is not on the ball, then you are correct that it will make a difference.

                        However, cadence braking is not a skill limited to F1 drivers and would not see you signed to any motorsport team. It is simply a part of competent driving skills.

                        1. Vic

                          > cadence braking is not a skill limited to F1 drivers

                          No, it isn't.

                          > and would not see you signed to any motorsport team.

                          It would if you managed to beat the ABS. Go on - actually *try* it.

                          > It is simply a part of competent driving skills.

                          You are unable to adjust the position of your foot on the pedal as rapidly as a modern ABS system does. You just don't have the hardware - humans aren't built that way.

                          So although a very good driver can get close to the performance of ABS, the rest of us are a long way behind it.


                  2. Fred Flintstone Gold badge

                    Vic, ABS implementations are not always sane..

                    The principle behind ABS is PREVENTING brake action for a split second, then re-assert friction when the wheel starts rotating again. There is a mild problem with that in modern car electronics: researchers have already demonstrated remote hacks of car electronics that COMPLETELY DISABLED THE BRAKES - do a search and you'll find it.

                    Insane, I know. Sadly very, very true :(.

                    1. Vic

                      > researchers have already demonstrated remote hacks of car electronics

                      > that COMPLETELY DISABLED THE BRAKES


                      > do a search and you'll find it.

                      I did a search and found nothing of the sort. Perhaps you'd like to show me what I missed.


            2. Puck

              @ Lee Dowling

              "For a start, you should NOT be gliding into the vans in front of you (insufficient braking distance, ice or not, ask your insurers)."

              Lee, these are UK drivers we're talking about. La Royaume de Jeremy Clarkson. Appeals to reason, safety, legality, morality, insurance liability, sense of shame, responsibility, caring for others' or one's own wellbeing, or any other sense of the boundaries of sanity and proper behaviour - are all useless.

          2. Colin Millar

            Not ABS

            ABS and TC are different things. And neither of them will work on ice cos you got no traction to start with.

            What is described in the article is classic oversensitive TC. The conditions seem to have been fairly poor as there was ice on the road at least in one place - the TC should have been turned off because in these conditions it is not just useless - it will work against you and can be a positive danger. What is needed is TC always off below 30.

            Learn about your equipment before you use it.

            1. Voland's right hand Silver badge

              Not all cars have a TC off button you know.

              Not all cars have a TC off button you know. I can think of at least one major make which had dispensed with the TC off button on their major model lines.

              The fact that you and me agree that this is a criminally stupid idea does not mean that 10%+ (more for fleet cars) out there are not from said manufacturer.

          3. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            @Oliver Mayes

            ABS doesn't work on ice.

            This is why you will see many people on the first snowy day of the year driving into the hedges, with their brake lights on, completely unaware that their braking is actually causing the skid to persist.

            I largely trust my cars computers... though I did hit a puddle on the apex of a corner once, causing quite a nasty understeer, which I actually caught... then the traction control kicked in, causing it to grip and snap into lift off oversteer. Wasn't really all that impressed with the safety system at that point in time.

            1. Vic

              > ABS doesn't work on ice.

              Yes it does.

              ABS is an Anti-lock Braking System. It releases the brakes when the wheel is locked. Even on ice. Which means it works on ice.

              What it is *not* is a Magic Braking System. If the friction is not there between your tyres and the surface, no amount of electrickery is going to help.


            2. Psyx

              ABS most certainly does 'work' on ice, because it does what it is supposed to do: Unlocks the brakes when they lock. That is most certainly not the problem. The problem is that road tyres and car braking systems do not 'work' properly on ice because of the lower friction. The problem is not ABS: The problem is between the steering wheel and the back of the seat in the driver travelling too fast for the conditions, or not braking early enough.

              People crash a lot on ice because they assume that just because modern cars have traction and/or ABS, they can still brake freely. 4x4 drivers are dreadful for assuming that AWD means that they can somehow magically stop just as quickly on ice and regularly tailgate in such conditions. ABS does not change the friction co-efficient of ice. That is not it's job.

              A major part of the problem is both not understanding the technology and what it can and cannot do, and not understanding the road conditions.

              The time when ABS *is* an issue is at low speed on snow. At very low speed (eg 5mph) locking the brakes allows a pile of snow to form in front of the wheel which helps the car stop. ABS does not do that.

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                I can only assume that the 'thumbs down' was placed there by one of the afor-mentioned AWD-owners, who has no idea how their vehicle actually operates, nor how to safely drive in icy conditions...

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          I don't know if ABS would have made a difference to my car accident but I wasn't driving at excessive speed for the conditions. Other safety features--seat-belts, airbags, and crumple zones--worked as advertised. ABS should pay off in that OMG-stop! situation.

          Something such as traction control seems far less significant. It could be dangerous, even, since it makes it easier to be going too fast in marginal conditions.

          I used to drive a Series III Land Rover. No fancy electronics. And the four-wheel drive could get you into some tricky situations. It didn't make the brakes any better.

        3. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          > That said, ABS *can* outperform a top driver in braking, but not by much...

          But surely the point/purpose of ABS is that it can easily outperform an "average" or "typical" driver.

        4. CheesyTheClown

          F*ck That!

          How the hell am I going to make it home in time to watch Beavis and Butthead while I'm hauling ass down the highway at 110km/hr in a 30 if I don't have the safety features.

          Do you have any idea how hard it is to drive a car without all the computers when I have my girlfriend on my iPhone and I'm trying to watch the GPS on the console?

          I used to have far more problems driving... things like traffic rules and laws that would force me to go slow or yield the right of way to people from the right and shit like that... but then I bought an Audi and am now exempt from those. If I can see the round-about, then I have the right of way now!

          Thanks to ABS, I didn't even spill my coffee on mr. happy while I was steering with my knees and talking on the phone with m girl friends sister (who I might add has been much sweeter to me since I go the Audi)... it would have been embarrassing showing up at her place, having burned the whole reason I went to visit in the first place.

          ABS is a necessity! Now stop talking this crap about driving safer... just pull out of my way.

          1. Fred Flintstone Gold badge

            @CheesyTheClown You're a loser. You should always, always text the girl in advance - best while you're coming round that roundabout. Use the next roundabout to check if your teeth are properly clean - Audis also have a mirror in the driver side sun shield..

      3. Raz

        @ phuzz Thursday 15th December 2011 11:22 GM

        ABS will not make you stop (a lot) sooner. It will "only" allow you to keep the car under control and not wildly spin around.

      4. Zog The Undeniable

        Most people misunderstand how ABS works. It is designed to allow the driver to maintain steering control during braking. It does not significantly, if at all, reduce stopping distances and won't stop you ploughing into the back of the car you were tailgating at 90mph (even though people were shown to drive closer in ABS-equipped cars, before all new cars were so fitted).

        Conversely, people who learned to drive without ABS don't use it properly. The technique should be to brake as hard as possible, and keep braking, while attempting to steer away from the collision. Instead, people modulate their braking and won't brake and steer at the same time, which is sensible without ABS but negates the benefits of the system if you do have it.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

 That is a terrifying way to drive. Braking in corners at the edge of the car's performance envelope is very dangerous. Please stop!!! I am sick to fricking death of seeing M3s, Audis and the like pitch into corners, try to brake in them and watching them go all squirrelly.


          If turning to avoid a hazard in an emergency situation, the brakes should not be applied at the time, as it restricts your car's grip levels and ability to turn: If you have an evasive path you should follow it as your primary action, any extra braking should not really be of benefit, or should be secondary in import to making that evasion route and maintaining the car's balance. If there is a way of driving out of the problem, then impeding your car's poise to do so is the wrong thing to do. Alternatively, if there is not a way out of the situation, then you need maximum braking effort rather than compramising grip levels by turning, and you need to present your crumple zones and crash protection to the hazard by hitting it head-on, rather than risking going in broadside.

          It doesn't matter if you have ABS or not, as regards tyre loading. A tyre can only hold so much load before slipping or locking. ABS does not change that. Tyres can either brake at maximum efficiency or corner effectively. If you ask them to do both at once, the car will skid. Specifically, the front outside will give way, followed by other corners, as the tyres are overloaded.

          Granted: ABS acts to allow changes of direction while braking, but it's still grossly sub-optimal and the act of a panicked or unskilled driver, and not the thing that drivers should be educated to do. Steer OR Brake. Simply lift off the brake for a half-second, allow the car to regain front-back balance, make the direction change, allow the car to regain side-to-side balance, then reapply braking efforts. It's far, far safer and better driving.

          Stop braking and turning, because it's blisteringly stupid. If this annoys you because you think you know better: Tough. Go and ask a traffic policeman or anyone who does track days. Because at present, you are a danger to ME!

    2. Scott Broukell
      Thumb Up


      Agreed, if I might add -Take away the seat belts, air bags and whatever, then fit solid metal dashboards with sharp edges and stuff - then you will see people slow down and take care of themselves and others on the roads. In effect - Keep it Simple.

      Otherwise we remain cocooned in all this needless gubbins and divorced from the real job in hand - driving with due care and attention.

      1. GrantB

        In otherwords

        Very possible; just drive cars from the 60's and 70's.

        When there were far fewer cars, generally not traveling as far or as fast and when much more people died on the roads.

        In otherwords, the safety mod-cons work. And work well.

    3. Voland's right hand Silver badge

      I beg to differ

      Traction control - definitely. If you drive sanely you do not need it. The failure described in the article is a classic traction control blooper. I used to have a car with VSA (aka traction control + selective breaking) and I hated it. It was of no use in really slippery situations and it sucked royally in marginal ones - unpredictable acceleration, etc. I am now back to proper "fully manual" fleet and it is a welcome change (especially at this time of the year).

      Lane departure warning - definitely. WATCH THE F*** ROAD YOU F*** TWIT!!! If you cannot watch the road you do not belong on it.

      ABS - I beg to differ. A well behaved ABS tends to kick in only in emergency situations and is of no consequence to normal driving. If you have gone as far as ABS usually you are in emergency stop mode. While emergency stop is something that is being tested and exercised for the practical driving test it is not something that is practiced regularly. If you drive normally you end up doing it once every 6k+ miles (if not 10k) so you are guaranteed to be a bit rusty on it. There is nothing wrong with some judicious assistance on that. I have had it kick in all in all 3 times in the last year or so and each time it was right, proper, needed and appreciated.

      1. Danny 14
        Thumb Up


        only used it a few times - there are 2 lights that flash on my dashboard 1 for ABS and 1 for traction control. Both times were emergency braking situations, I still did my usual hard pump then softer sharper pumps to avoid skidding but the ABS kicked in anyway.

        TC was on perpetually last year in the ice and snow - I was quite impressed by it to be honest.

        1. Corporate Mushroom


          For those that are unaware. The purpose of ABS is not to improve straight-line braking, but to provide the driver a measure of steering control while breaking in an emergency situation. The fact that it can improve braking for the average driver in slippery conditions is a bonus.

          1. Vic

            > The purpose of ABS is not to improve straight-line braking

            Yes it is. It's an Anti-lock system. Locked wheels provide almost no retardation.

            That it also permits you to steer is a bonus - but that may not be the best way out of the situation (depending on how badly you've fucked up in the first place).


            1. Rune Moberg

              Avoid ABS when you think you need it the most

              On dry asphalt, ABS is marvelous. I would be very surprised if any driver (regardless of how skilled he thinks he is) could match it in any way.

              On snow and ice... It only helps in those situations where you are too lazy to take your foot off the brakes so you can use the steering wheel.

              The thing is that you want to lock the wheels on snow, because this increases your chances of digging the wheels deeper so they eventually touch the road surface. Plowing up snow in front of the wheels also helps.

              ABS tries to mimic this by allowing the wheels to lock a bit, but the prime directive is to allow the driver the opportunity to steer the car.

              1. Andrew Norton


                "On dry asphalt, ABS is marvelous. I would be very surprised if any driver (regardless of how skilled he thinks he is) could match it in any way."

                Really? I think it's pretty simple. I Just don't jam the pedal all the way down. By stopping just short of the skid-point, I get maximum braking ability. ABS is not, and never has been maximum braking ability. The clue's in the operation. It kicks in when the wheels lock. When the wheels lock, you have REDUCED braking force. So when it starts kicking in, you're already behind the curve.

                I believe the Michigan State Police experimented with the ABS system during their annual police vehicle tests one year. A braking test is one of the tests they do, and on a non-ABS brakeing, they average about 29ft/s/s deceleration. ABS gives about 23 iirc, which isn't upto the spec they require, which is 24.

                The point of ABS is to prevent wheels from STAYING locked into a skid when braking, so that you have steering ability, just as you would if you hadn't caused a lockup to begin with. ABS isn't there to improve braking, but to help with drivers panicking.

                Personally, I can't stand it. The one vehicle I had with it, I disabled it. It was a pain. If the wheels lock, it's because I wanted them to. Same vehicle had traction control. It was turned off when the ignition was turned on.

                Something really funny though is that 2 years ago, I went to visit a friend who lives on a Mountain in Georgia. It's actually a suburban mountain, just on the edge of Marietta (where the Lockheed Martin plant is, Blackjack mountain is on the flightpath). Anyway, it was snowing. I drove up that place, then had to turn around and drive up the other side, because at the top was a 14 car pile up (with 3 news teams and a news chopper overhead). Every car in the pileup had ABS, most had TC (it's a posh area). Me? I was driving a 20yo american boat (Lumina) which not only had neither, but was a slushbox as well.

                ABS/TC are just to make incompetent drivers slightly less dangerous to the rest of us.

                1. Vic

                  > I believe the Michigan State Police experimented with the ABS system

                  > during their annual police vehicle tests one year.

                  Perhaps you'd like to give a reference for that; the only MSP info I can find shows ABS-equipped vehicles performing very well, with the sole exception of the Harley Davidsons in the 2007 test. This is hardly a surprise for anyone that's seen a Harley, and nothing to do with ABS...


            2. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Yes and no. The purpose is to prevent the wheels staying locked up, as they would if the driver panicked and over-applied them. If the wheels don't lock the ABS system makes *no* difference to braking distance... well, apart from the extra couple of cm you'll travel, due to having to retard a slightly greater mass, but that's being pedantic.

              Granted; cadence braking and an alert, skilled driver will *slightly* outperform ABS braking if there is a lock-up, but that's not the target audience. But there's no point skilled drivers getting arrogant about it and discarding ABS as a concept for them 'because they're too good to use it': I'm into my track days and motorsport, but would still favour ABS on any high performance road car which I intended driving in excess of normal parameters, because there are times when I'm *not* 100% on the game, and might lock the brakes. In that situation, the ABS is a boon.

              In short: Even if you ARE Jenson Button... sometimes you're just not concentrating and alert enough to prevent the mistake and to cadence brake properly.

              More to the point, what stood out to me in this article was why on EARTH did the author drive over a railway crossing in a car that was evidently malfunctioning and delivering power erratically. This is a blisteringly stupid thing to do! Never mind about 'remember to turn the electronics off if your car does something silly', how about 'remember not to do incredibly risky things in a car behaving erratically'?

    4. commonsense
      Thumb Down

      Everybody thinks that they are...

      ...Lewis Hamilton. Not everybody is a skilled driver, not everybody knows how to steer into a skid. And as for ABS, suppose a kid runs out into the street? Not your fault, but I'd be willing to bet that ABS will do a better job than most people here.

    5. PsychicMonkey


      doesn't actually do much to stopping distances really, it helps you keep control of the car by attempting to prevent the wheels locking up. If at all possible you should try and steer around the obstruction, rarely possible I know.

      You do tend to see people lock up quite a lot though, they stamp on the brakes and hope for the best because they panic.

      Much like the lady in the brand new golf that slammed in to the back of me yesterday.....

      Stop, because she didn't..

      1. Vic

        > [ABS] doesn't actually do much to stopping distances really

        Oh yes it does.

        A skilled driver who knows about cadence braking may be able to get fairly close to the stopping distance of an ABS system. But very few drivers are that skilled.

        What usually happens in an emergency situation is that the driver sticks his hoof on the pedal and locks up most or all wheels. The car then carries on with little or no retardation.

        The difference between a car with ABS and one without in such a situation has to be seen to be believed...


    6. miknik


      OK so you are the greatest driver in the world and you don't need ABS.

      Come back when you have been rear ended by someone who isn't the greatest driver in the world because you took their ABS away and then argue your case again.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    crappy testing

    But what were you doing crossing a rail line with a car exhibiting unknown errors ?

    You're a sysadmin. Would you leave a server in production that was reducing it's performance to a crawl for no apparent reason ?

    A computer in a car is just another component. Would you have blamed the brake manufacturer if you had driven on with faulty braking for just a few more blocks ?

    1. The Jase

      "But what were you doing crossing a rail line with a car exhibiting unknown errors ?"

      If you read the blog, the answer was "driving to the dealership to get the car looked at"

      1. Lee Dowling Silver badge

        For an *UNRELATED* problem (i.e. oil change).

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        would you stay in a burning house while waiting for the fire brigade?

        This is exactly why we have breakdown services. When a vehicle becomes a risk to its occupants and the people around it then it should be removed from the road.

        What if a train had hit the car, many people could have died. The second things started becoming dangerous he should have stopped and called whoever he is covered by. Not covered, face the costs! Don't risk my friends and families lives because you want to save a buck!

      3. Lee Dowling Silver badge

        More importantly - think how would you explain it to a police officer (which is always a good exercise in "Should I be doing this?").

        "Sorry, officer, I know the car has a fault and even have a garage appointment for it, but I thought I'd drive it there, across 20 blocks of public roads in the ice, knowing it has a fault rather than get a tow truck out."

        I doubt a grieving family would be any more sympathetic to that answer, either.

      4. Steven Jones

        But there is a user error - and a dangerous one

        This was not a case of driving a car that suddenly developed a fault, it was continuing to drive a car that was in a dangerous condition. There's no excuse for continuing to drive it like that - there are call-out services. The car was clearly in a known, dangerous state and if an accident at a junction had resulted then the driver would have been liable. Vehicles can go wrong at any time - we need to be sensible enough to know what is potentially very dangerous.

        So this one is a user error. Airline pilots would be grounded if they took a plane up with a potentially lethal fault.

  3. Lee Dowling Silver badge

    Driver Error

    The computer was NOT at fault. You were driving a known-faulty car in icy conditions, at high speed, across train tracks and presumably in other traffic. You knew there was something wrong with the car and kept driving it. You knew there was ice but didn't mention it or give it a second thought. You couldn't even feel that your tyres weren't gripping on the ice you'd PARKED on or that you wheelspun a little. You continued your journey (from the sounds of it, after SEVERAL of these drop-out incidents and loud bangs from the car) with no care for the car's state and tried to negotiate a train crossing with potentially disastrous results. You were DRIVING TO A GARAGE for feck's sake - it wasn't an urgent appointment and you could have stopped and pulled over and called them to come get you at any point.

    All because you were too fecking reliant on your car's technology to tell you there was a problem, ignorant of it when it did, and too stubborn to interrupt your journey for a potentially fatal problem that caused you to slow suddenly with loud bangs coming from your car. You do know that you can literally FIRE components out of a faulty gearbox / engine through the bodywork? You do know that your engine is quite capable of combustion? You do know that the car is made of extremely fast moving solid metal parts that can do untold damage to themselves, fuel lines, pedestrians, yourself etc.?

    You're a bloody idiot, mate. The car was trying to save your life based on the little information it has and was unfortunate enough to be lumbered with a human operator that constantly overrode it to drive against its wishes, despite major warning signs of potentially ANY failure (mechanical or not), and had no concept of the driving conditions around him.

    Take the bus next time, and do everyone a favour.

    1. The BigYin

      I've had my motorcycle act in a similar manner.

      So I pulled over and had a look.

      Thing is, my bike is carbed so it took about 5 seconds to realise fuel was low and it was running lean, flick to reserve and off to the petrol station (no fuel gauge).

      And there's the thing - my bike was user servicable at the road-side, modern cars (and bikes) are now. Heck, it can even be impossible to replace a bulb without removing the front wheel on some cars!

      This all comes down to poor type approval. Basic repairs should be achievable by an untrained driver by the roadside and only with the tools/manuals carried by the car. Wheels, fuse and bulb changes should all be in that requirement. If it can't be done in reasonable time (say 15 minutes) then the design fails approval and is no allowed on the road.

      If one's vehicle is going bat-shit, one should pull over where safe to do so. No excuse really.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        RS-232 port?

        Plug in a terminal and fire up GDB? ;-)

    2. Silverburn
      Thumb Up

      In prinicple I agree

      ie that as a driver, not being able to detect that one wheel is spinning and the other is not, is pretty shoddy. Given the symtoms, even a cack-handed muppet like me could tell it was a software problem in desperate need of a reboot.

      However, there are 2 points:

      He's probably driving an American car. Which means there's 3 tons and 16ft of poorly built and cheap metal, oil, rubber and plastic between him and the wheels, which probably meant he had f* all feedback to begin with. He could probably run over a moose and not detect it, never mind notice some wheelspin. That and the system being unable to recover from a 'value exception state' on the fly is pretty bad too.

      He did seem to soldier on a bit too long IMO, but you wouldn't immediately stop and do a full mechanical strip down every time it "coughed". 20 blocks is a bit long to make an informed decision though, I agree...

      1. Andy ORourke

        I agree too

        Although I wonder what kind of Sys Admin he is if he didnt simply stop, turn it off and turn it back on again?

        I kid you not, last week I drove my 5 year old Focus and the speedo reported a drop to 0 MPH (even though I was doing "60" on a major A road. Pulled into a lay-by, turned off and on and hey presto, everything was fine (and has been since!)

        1. Ben Tasker


          Seen that on a number of Focus'.

          Check your Speed Sensor (it's in the gearbox, towards the back of the compartment at the back) as it's a common fault. Left too long it'll lead to stalls when you approach junctions, and intermittent engine cut-outs (including at speed).

          Oh and annoyingly, the radio will turn down to match the 'known' speed!

          New sensor is about £40, you can fit it yourself but the old one can be hell to get out (buy a new retaining pin as well!)

        2. Jigr69

          Known Focus problem

          Expect that to happen more and more as the sensor dies! Eventually, it'll be showing you 0mph more than the correct speed. (You may also notice the radio goes quieter since it turns the volume up slightly to compensate for the extra road/engine noise.)

      2. Raz

        @ Silverburn Thursday 15th December 2011 12:02 GMT

        I bet you it was a Toyota. Whatever you say about the American cars you can say about them as well.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          "I bet you it was a Toyota. Whatever you say about the American cars you can say about them as well."

          Yes, because the MR2 and AE86 are known for giving poor driver feedback...

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Never mind rebooting it

    You were driving a vehicle that was manifestly unsafe to be on the road. You should have parked it and called a tow truck. It's not just you that could have been hurt.

    1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge


      Thus the pulling in to the parking lot. Lots of snap judgements in the thread about what I should/should not have done. Fair enough; hindsight is 20/20. But the design of the road I was on meant that there *was* no place to "pull over and wait for a tow truck" excepting across those rail lines and in that parking lot.

      For all intents and purposes, my car picked the worst and most deadly possible road in the city to try this. So yeah; tow truck was front of mind, primarily because I though the tranny was done for. When I tried for the intersection with the tracks on it, it was with the number of collisions at that specific location in mind.

      I couldn't see a train, and figured that even if I had to drop her in neutral and push her across the line, it was probably safer than putting the blinkers on and hoping I didn't get turned into confetti by an escalade.

      What isn’t in the article is that I called for a tow truck to meet me at the parking lot. I was asked to move my car to another stall as the one I was in was reserved. When I lit her up to move, she behaved fine. I cautiously drove around a bit more, determined she was handling okay, and cancelled the tow truck. The few remaining blocks to the mechanic weren’t OMG DEATH, so if she died on me, I could just use the blinkers.

      Calculated risk.

      1. Vic

        > there *was* no place to "pull over and wait for a tow truck"

        Yes there was.

        Whatever the design of the road, even leaving the car in the carriageway is a safer bet than leaving it stranded on a railway line.

        > I though the tranny was done for.

        You should have pulled to the side of the road, whatever sort that might be. Taking a car with a broken transmission onto a railway line is the sort of thing that qualifies you for a Darwin award.

        One last thing:

        > hindsight is 20/20

        If you're relying on hindsight to make your decisions, you've already failed.

        Take a look at Roadcraft[1]. It might be a bit UK-centric for your environment, but the skills therein mean that the next time something like this happens, it's a minor inconvenience, rather than a life-threatening situation.


        [1] . It's saved my life a few times...

        1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge


          Well, the issue at hand is one of getting off the road without getting killed by the twits in the Escalades. Walking away from the car alone is probably riskier. Remember: the car was at this point working just fine at 20kph. There was no reason to believe that it would suddenly stop responding to input. (I believed it to be stuck in 1st it pretty much is how it was behaving.)

          20kph is certainly more than enough to get through an intersection, and frankly it was less risk in pretty much every possible way than trying to exit the vehicle at that intersection.

          It’s really easy to pass judgement across the internet. Especially when you don’t have all the details of circumstance. It is another thing entirely to know all the details and have to make those choices on the fly.

          At the end of the day, she made it where she needed to go, and I didn’t get massacred by the idiots screaming through the lights at 100kph. Again, there was no place to “leave the car.” Not without getting killed. So my choices here were “almost certainly get killed by either staying in the car with the blinkers on, or attempting to exit the car at that point.” or “try to make it 15m across the tracks at 20kph.”

          I stand by my choice, even in the face of judgement from random people on the Internet.

          1. Vic


            > Well, the issue at hand is one of getting off the road without getting killed by the twits

            That's a problem to be solved. I could not possibly see driving a failed car onto a railway line as a proper solution to that problem.

            > Walking away from the car alone is probably riskier.

            Then I would maintain you do not understand the risk of driving a failed car onto a railway line.

            > Remember: the car was at this point working just fine at 20kph.

            No it was *not* working fine. You were already aware of a serious fault with the car.

            > There was no reason to believe that it would suddenly stop responding to input.

            I would say that there was every reason to believe so. Your car was in the middle of a significant failure. All bets are off...

            > (I believed it to be stuck in 1st it pretty much is how it was behaving.)

            Had your hypothesis been correct, a total loss of drive would have been a reasonable next step in the failure. Driving onto a railway line in a car that might be about to lose all drive really isn't a smart thing to do.

            > It is another thing entirely to know all the details and have to make those choices on the fly.

            Read the book I mentioned earlier. The thing it hammers home all the way through is that the way to survive problems like that is by the use of really effective planning. Had you been in that mindset, you would not have had to make a choice on the fly.

            > I stand by my choice, even in the face of judgement from random people on the Internet.

            Not for the first time, I find myself watching you make excuses for the errors in your approach, rather than understanding and learning from the criticism you receive. Please don't ever buy a motorcycle.


          2. Intractable Potsherd


            If I remember my various bits of driver training, the recommendation is to pull over *in a safe place*. Too may people pull over wherever they notice there is a problem (flat tyre on the inside of bend, for instance). Trevor clearly knows the road and knew that it was not safe to pull over until the place he did.

            1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

              @Intractable Potsherd

              Ah, but you forget that Vic - as with many internet commenters - is armed with the invincible knowledge provided by ardent conviction in spite of things like "facts" or "on scene assessment. It is no different, really, than the sort of armchair warfighting self-important twats get up to when reading about another soldier killed in Afghanistan.

              Well *obviously* they should have *simply* done Y! There is simply no excuse for it! As someone who uses the Internet, they unquestionably know better than the soldiers on scene!

              Same self important logic, different scenario.

              It is a simple case of binary thinking. Life is *obviously* either one or zero. There are no states in between. And they wonder when I believe that nerds should have their work reviewed. Nobody is immune to bias, snap judgements, or simply ignoring inconvenient truths because it makes the pre-existing logic of our prior prejudices and beliefs work out.

              When that gets translated into code there exists the potential for problems. Anyone so utterly intractable in their thinking as to ardently and vociferously asses such a complicated situation with so very many variables in an absolutist and binary manner is making my point for me.

              They will however never understand that.

              1. Vic

                > Vic - as with many internet commenters - is armed with the invincible

                > knowledge provided by ardent conviction in spite of things like "facts"

                An ad hominem, Trevor? Have you run out of argument already?

                I've presented you with evidence. I have given you a reference to the material I use, and if you'd look at that, you'd understand why I say the things I say.

                Instead, you go off on a personal attack. Shame on you.


                1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge


                  You know Vic, you don’t exactly have standing to be complaining about the rules of formal debate. You have several demonstrable flaws in your method, and a live-moderated forum is hardly the appropriate venue for the kind of semantic arguing that a truly proper formal debate gives rise to.

                  Your first logical fallacy is that when taken on aggregate, your posts consistently forward an appeal to authority; with yourself as the authority. As an establishment of yourself as an authority on – quite frankly multiple areas of expertise over which you seem to claim domain – you offer neither primary sources nor credentials. Instead you offer whimsical anecdotes that are supposed to be “evidence” of your vast personal experience.

                  A few issues pop up with this. Experience does not equate to expertise. Oh, you can make it sound as though you *obviously* have the expertise because of tangentially related experience, but that can just as easily by verbal sleight-of-hand. Let’s use an example.

                  I have over 25000+ hours as a Systems administrator for photography companies and photographic labs. Another 5000+ hours supporting the image/video rendering industry. In that time, I have picked up enough knowledge to talk the talk, but I cannot walk the walk.

                  I could certainly sound like I knew a great deal about photography. Enough even to convince some experienced professional photographers. The truth of the matter is I neither know nor care about anything related to photography. I know about the bits of photography that relate to computers. The cameras and everything related to them might as well be voodoo.

                  Now, I can of course put together a line of bull and convince someone online I’m an expert in photography. My experience combined with ready access to Google and Wikipedia could make me photographer trollpants of the year. But it does not make me an expert in photography. It makes me (potentially) an expert in digital imagery processing, at best.

                  So your appeal to yourself as an authority on embedded systems, vehicles (and the galaxy of related topics in between) that you have oh-so-subtly claimed is denied. I don’t buy it, and your use of this argumentative strategy has lowered my opinion of you quickly and dramatically.

                  The second issue I have with your argumentation is your approach to statistics. You have evidenced issues that fall under the common heading of the ecological inference fallacy. You have made judgments about me based not upon examination of the individual, but examination of the group to which I belong. (People who drive across a set of tracks when a car that’s acting up.)

                  Now admittedly, your trespass into this area was not as deep as that of others. (Seriously, “trying to avoid a tow charge?” You people pay for towing? Don’t you have auto clubs?) But you still made (wrong) assumptions based upon the behaviours and actions of other individuals who are members of the same group, instead of examining the motivations and behaviour of the individual in question. Entirely apart from the reasons that this is a fallacy on its own (and I’ll leave you to Google that), is can – and often does – lead to another logical fallacy; the hasty generalization.

                  The last one that I want to bring to your attention – and I am cutting this off at three rather than iterate the entire list due to comment length, not due to running out of violations – is the Ludic Fallacy. (This is a relatively new term, but Wikipedia does actually have a decent article on it:

                  The heart of it is “using games to model RL.” While I have my disagreements about the exact representation and caveats typically assigned to the Ludic Fallacy, when extended to apply to both “using games theory to model RL” and “using statistics to model RL” it becomes somewhat more feature complete.

                  In short; statistics can inform us about the majority of cases. Games theory can do the same. But not all cases are identical, and – statistically speaking – there will always be a certain number of events within a given set that fall outside your 3 (or 5) sigma threshold.

                  I will not disagree with you for a fraction of a second if you say that “in most cases (or even in nearly all cases) when one is experiencing car troubles, one should not risk taking a car across any set of train tracks.” I would accept that judgment as correct based upon empirical data that you and I both accept as true.

                  This was empirical data I had in hand when I made the decision I made. I believed – based on circumstances as well as additional information about driving patterns, light timings, observations of neighbouring vehicles, etc. – that this was a situation falling outside at least 3 sigma, and possibly 5.

                  In other words, I did not take a statistically absolutist approach to risk management and analysed the situation itself rather than believing that the top of the bell curve can speak for all data points.

                  The particularities of this individual situation meant that it was actually *less risk* to try for the tracks than it was to sit there and get killed. There is zero – understand me literally zero – doubt in my mind that had I not made the choice I made, I would in fact currently be dead.

                  This is where the appeal to authority comes in. I have in fact talked to individuals I consider to be subject matter experts. Friends and family who drive that road every day, including my insurance broker two police officers and a professor of Mathematics at the local University. Every one of them except one agrees wholeheartedly with my decision. (And he believes that I was “categorically insane to drive that road in the light piece of tinfoil [I] call a car in the first place.”)

                  I accept them as authorities in the matter, whereas I don’t accept you as same. You may be in possession of some statistical knowledge. You may even have programmed an embedded system or two in your time.

                  That does not make you a subject matter expert, nor does it make “the statistical norm” apply to every situation. (Which you should damn well know if you do program embedded systems. Otherwise, what the hell are you doing in charge of people’s lives?)

                  So sir, I find fault with your logic. I find fault with your style of argumentation and I find fault with your so-called “evidence.” I called you on it. If you choose to take that as an ad homenim, feel free.

                  But to be perfectly clear, the comment was directed at the coherence of your arguments. Arguments that were absolutist, positing assertions as fact and given the number of your posts in this thread alone, an attempt at “accuracy by volume.” (And quite possibly “proof by intimidation,” given your abrasive tone.)

                  If you want to argue this further, please feel free to return to the article and select “email the author.” My free time is spent debating virtually every topic in existence on the Ars Technica forums with some of the best trolls on the planet. I would be entirely pleased to go 100 rounds with you about this, but there is zero reason to subject other commenters (and the poor moderator) to that much back and fourth.

            2. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              You're safer at the side of a busy road than you are stalled out on a railway, mate!

              The car seems to have been in 'limp home' mode, so the first thing to do should have been to pull over and stop and restart it, to see if it was a glitch. Windows users might want to get out of the car and get back in it again.

              The *last* thing that should be done is to drive over a railway crossing. I can't think of a more dangerous thing to have done.

              The only thing worse than making a massive error of judgement is to then refuse to learn from it or acknowledge it afterwards.

              1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge


                Going to have to agree to disagree here, mate. I will trust the judgement of others who live in my city and drive that road every day than random commenters on the Internet. The whole thing has been thrashed out at length locally amongst folks whose judgement I trust, and shockingly they do in fact disagree with armchair opinions from across the internets.

                So I guess we’ll have to leave it at that.

            3. Vic

              > the recommendation is to pull over *in a safe place*


              And by comparison to driving a faulty car onto a railway line, pretty much anywhere counts as "safe"...


  5. Ru

    So, uh,

    what make and model of car do you drive?

    Just out of, y'know, interest.

  6. bdam

    I had a Merc with this "feature" built in!

    If you ignore the "service me!" warning for too long, the damn thing *deliberately* went into what they called "limp mode" (not an allusion to WP7's market share). It won't go above 20mph - just enough to get you to a garage and hand dosh over to, yes you guessed it, the only people with the right equipment to reset this - Merc garages.

    An experience like yours where a lack of acceleration put me in genuine danger is why I now drive Audis and will never look back - I don't even care if Merc have fixed this issue now, they've blown it forever with me on that one.

    1. Lee Dowling Silver badge

      1) Don't buy things without checking for things you won't like.

      2) If something says SERVICE ME in big letters, get it serviced and don't ignore it. Especially when it tells you in the car manual what the hell it will do.

      3) You can service Mercedes the same as any other car in any garage that has the knowledge. You don't need to be a Mercedes agent to turn the light off (at least, in the UK, because it would be illegal under competition laws) but you might need to buy an OBD adaptor or two (which is nothing for a garage). Also, you might lose your warranty with Mercedes but that much is obvious (and if you don't want to lose that warranty, you can ONLY have it serviced by Mercedes).

      4) I very much doubt that a lack of acceleration could put you in any genuine danger unless you were actually *expecting* the car to accelerate and basing your safety on that fact (i.e. you were driving insufficiently carefully).

      1. Matthew 3

        The competition laws are clear on this. If your garage (or you) have only used manufacturer-approved parts and they're fitted correctly, you cannot void your warranty.

        Of course the car firms make it as hard as they can for someone outside the dealer network to have the right kit to do servicing but it *is* possible.

    2. Tom Wood

      "If you ignore the "service me!" warning for too long"

      Don't, then.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Down


      Downvoted as this is a blatant "I drive an Audi and can afford a Merc" post.

    4. philbo

      You're not unusual..

      ..most Audi drivers never look back: too busy focussing on the bumper six inches in front of theirs.

    5. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      That is a feature, this is a bug.

      Limiting the car _consistently_ to some speed is quite different from letting you drive at whatever speed you like then suddenly deciding that 20km/h is quite enough, thank you, or cutting acceleration entirely, then coming back up after a bit of cool-down.

      I'd still not want such a don't-kill-the-car feature (if I choose to drive the car until it literally burns out despite consistent warning it will do so, soonish, that's up to me) though other people might be happy with it, and there would be reason to sue the manufacturer if it wasn't clearly in the manual that this will happen. But it's an entirely different kettle of fish than the far more dangerous and clearly not intended confused hash described in the article.

    6. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I had a Merc

      Ive been driving Mercs for 15 years and have always been told by them that the service indicator is only a guide and a couple of thousand miles over is fine. I have never had the issue you describe so can only assume that you have gone so far over that you are endangering the car by doing so. Don't therefore blame the car or manufacturer for protecting you from your own stupidity. If Audi are daft enough to let you run their car into the ground to save a few $ on servicing don't blame them when something expensive fails and you really are perhaps left in danger.

      1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge


        According to the sticker they gave me, I was supposed to bring her in for serviceing at 56500 miles. My odo read 56556 when I got it to the dealership. The trip from my house to the dealership is ~30 miles.

        Is that "dangerously over?" If so, can you please give me a source for that?

        As to "save a few $ on servicing," I don't understand where you would draw such an inference. I have never – ever – had my car serviced in any fashion where money was an issue. I hand my vehicle over to my mechanic with the explicit instructions “do what needs to be done, and don’t call for permission unless it goes over $5000.”

        I have never had cause to believe that he would screw me for so much as a cent and thus no reason no to give him carte blanche to do whatever servicing he feels is necessary. He has 30+ years experience with this make of car. I am absolutely and categorically not going to question his judgement regarding my vehicle.

        He is the expert. He ahs the superior knowledge. My ability to Wikipedia up some information does not put me in a position to endanger myself or others by refusing the recommendations of the the individual who is quite probably the best qualified person for 400km in any direction to tell me what needs be done to my car.

        So if you feel that adhering to the milage he puts on the “visit me again in” sticker +/- about 50 miles is “dangerously over” then please list sources. I will discuss them at legnth with my mechanic.

    7. miknik


      Sorry but you didn't. You had a separate fault which put your car into limp.

      You can go as far over your service interval as you want and it won't go into limp mode. We had one today 30,000 miles overdue, I've seen one more than 100,000 overdue. This feature in Mercs exists only in your head, as does the concept that only Mercedes-Benz can fix your Mercedes-Benz.

      Anyway enough from me, I've got an independent Mercedes repair garage to run.

    8. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      But 99% of the time

      can't service warnings be put down to a dirty sensor, or a timeout that doesn't necessarily mean anything is wrong?

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I don't feel that huge amounts of software and electronics have any place in vehicles of any kind Software is too vast and complex these days to be free of defects.

    While a bug is annoying in a desktop PC, a bug in a car can be pretty fatal.

    The root cause is the languages used to write the software, there needs to be better software development languages where it is easier to test all eventualities and states.

    1. Vic

      > Software is too vast and complex these days to be free of defects.

      The software in the embedded computers generally used in this sort of application is comparatively simple. It *can* be free of defects. What is needed is a properly-engineered solution. This is not cheap.

      > a bug in a car can be pretty fatal

      That's *incredibly* unlikely. What will usually happen in a failure mode is that the fail detector (be it a watchdog, a conflict detector, or whatever) will shut down the offending article and leave the overall system in a safe - if degraded - condition.

      > The root cause is the languages used to write the software

      No it isn't.

      > there needs to be better software development languages where it is easier

      > to test all eventualities and states.

      Such languages exist - this is why Ada used to be mandated in many projects, for example.

      If a faulty piece of automotive computing kit is produced, that's not because it's fundamentally impossible to have made it correctly. It simply means that the design constraints had "profit" at too high a priority, and "safety" too low.


  8. rurwin

    "Computers – especially the critical, embedded computers – need to be properly engineered. Not by a kid who read a book and learned some C#, but by someone with an iron ring."

    Relax, we're still here, and we take our work seriously.

    However, one of the hardest errors for a computer to signal is "I'm confused". If the program understood the situation to that extent, then it wouldn't be confused. Granted that one transient event should not result in long-lasting and chaotic behaviour such as you describe. I imagine that you hit pathological interactions between two or three independent 'ECU's in the engine, the transmission and the brakes. See RFC439.

    Having the car stop on a fault condition is far better in the vast majority of situations than doing the opposite. Of course there are places that you don't want to stop; I ran out of fuel once in the only ten feet of a busy high-street that was single width. (I know; it didn't kill me.) But there are far more places where you don't want uncontrolled speed.

    In this case, the correct response was indeed to stop and switch off the ignition, not because it would reboot the computer, these days it may not, but because that returns everything to a known good state -- wheels, transmission and engine all stationary. From that state the computers should be able to return to sanity.

    Beer icon because us embedded types probably owe you a beer, and you probably need one.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I see where you're coming from.

      But I don't think of that as acceptable, sorry. The software writer's reflex is to retry, reboot, reinstall to get back to that "known-good" state. But you can't reboot reality.

      Recall that this is not a full-authority system and that not only is it dropping the ball back to the driver --still nominally in charge-- but also taking away the means to do something about it. The system is shutting down the car because it is confused does so without awareness of external factors that may or may not make its actions even more unsafe.

      So the assumption is unwarranted. Even if it works out "fine" most of the time, with just a little bit of heartburn for the occupants of the car; something not registered so not important, right? While from the perspective of the computer that's indeed the best, it is not at all from the more important perspective of the car in its environment. That this makes your job that much harder, well, time to start really earning the wages, eh.

      1. rurwin

        I specifically did not say reboot.

        I said put the system in a well-known, stable state. The most stable and well-known state is to stop and switch off the engine.

        I said that the car should not have behaved erratically due to a single simple event. But I would also love to hear what you think the car should do in a fault situation.

        You say delivering minimal power is dangerous, but what would you suggest?

        I would argue that continuing to deliver full power to a driver who regularly trusts his life to the computer, is far more dangerous. If you don't make the driving experience bad, then the service simply wont be done, and the car will still be driven as if nothing is wrong.

        Personally I would prefer that this car had stopped completely after the first couple of events... no matter where it was. That's the way cars always used to break down.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          I say: Check your assumptions at the door, please.

          "Obviously" the car is safest when not in motion. Right? That assumes it's been stopped and parked in a safe space. That is quite a different thing from going 200km/h on the autobahn and suddenly deciding that turning the moving car into a brick will turn the situation in the safest available. Or end up parked astride a railway crossing; those things smell trouble and pop up at the darnedest times. Safe parking places may not be available and fellow road users might not be able to adjust to the new situation in time, to name but a few objections.

          Problems? Quite a few actually. That starting assumption, that there exists an action that will invariably turn an unknown situation in a safe one. That's an attempt at rebooting the universe right there, by any other name. It implies failing to even consider the car in the wider context of "other moving vehicles in the vicinity", possibly "going in the same direction, right behind you". That action might equally well turn the situation into a smoking heap of ruin, you have no guarantee it won't.

          Another is making that decision hard-coded, overriding anything the "commander" of the car, the person legally responsible, the driver, might do. And then there is the insult to injury with the "chipped toner cartridge" behaviour. Even more insult because it is an auxiliary system without whose safety enhancements it is still quite possible to drive safely, even if the envelope within which you can do so is smaller. Safety enhancements should not themselves become safety hazards, nevermind deliberately so.

          Who are you to tell me what I can and cannot do when I'm in charge and you're not even there? Why are you taking away the tools with wich to discharge that responsibility, without regard for the situation and thus quite possibly creating a worse situation?

          What I would have you do? Do not do that. Don't do any of that. Stick to enhancing safety or if you cannot do that, at most taking the confused system out of the equation --and loudly announce that you do so-- but under no circumstances let a safety system become itself a potential hazard.

          Like with the airbus, this implies that the driver must know what to do in a "degraded" situation, and if that means extra training, so be it. Maybe we will have to have an allowance tickbox for stick drive, for ABS, and so on. Maybe every driver should do a slipping course too. Knowing what to do when the shit hits the fan is valuable and given the time during which we hold driver's licences, well, you'll hit a snag or two eventually. Someone proposed to have re-exams every ten years or so. Good idea probably, as road rules get updated too, and maybe make it compulsory to get an extra tickbox if there's any left to get, just so you get to expand your skills a bit.

          But the thing is: Either go all the way and have the ruddy thing drive itself (and since I'm just finishing up Stanford's online ai class, I do have some inkling of what that involves, yes), or you limit the added safety enhancing systems to add to, but never detract from what the thing might safely do. In no case should such a system cause interference because it would really prefer to go back to the garage. Announce the desire, yes. Deliberately break the car, even temporarily, no. That's the driver's prerogative, not the embedded software developer's, not even the manufacturer's. Sorry.

      2. AndrueC Silver badge

        Well it could have a red flashing light(*). Maybe it's time modern cars started having a generic warning indicator.

        (*)One with 'strange' written on it in memory of 'Airplane II' :D

    2. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

      Rebooting only works

      if you know it's a computer problem to begin with. :)

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Road safety would be improved by a spike on your steering wheel...

    ...instead of an airbag.

    How much more carefully would people drive if safety features were removed (abs, airbags, intellegent parking, skid sensors)?

    All of these tools, which protect poor drivers against their stupid decisions, actually reduce the care and attention people need to pay when driving a ton of metal at 100kph near other metal boxes full of squishy humans.

    Maybe too much safety makes them less safe overall?

    1. Bassey

      Cut the crap

      Whenever there is a car thread in here a bunch hollier than thou morons come on and tell everyone "well, if you were driving properly..."


      I want ABS because the prick at sat in his driveway up ahead might not see me and could pull out in front of me. In that scenario, I have done nothing wrong but ABS might prevent us both winding up dead.

      Just because you feel the need to jump on a public forum and tell everyone what a wonderful driver you are doesn't mean there aren't compelete pricks out there that could kill you in a flash.

      There is no prize for being "dead" right.

      1. Lee Dowling Silver badge

        And there ABS is little better than pumping brakes on a non-ABS car (and can be worse on some surfaces which ABS has no way to detect).

        The "everyone else is a pillock" mantra is quite, quite, true, but you can't modify their behaviour. Otherwise nobody would have side-impact bars because, in the normal course of things, most people would never have a side-impact unless SOMEONE was driving dangerously.

        That said, the bloke in his driveway needs ABS too. So it's a no-win situation. Everyone has the same level of car braking, which is the same as all of us having cars with none of these safety features. We didn't gain anything here, because other people drive cars that are just as fecking dangerous as ours, even with our fancy ABS, airbags, SIPS and everything else.

        The problem is that all those safety features DO also lead to complacent driving. Cars are advertised now with things that detect you nodding off, or veering out of your lane, for feck's sake. And I can name several people who genuinely believed that ABS meant Automatic Braking System, because they see that feature on SOME cars in the news (where it can brake to avoid collisions) and assume that's what ABS is (hell, it's even a trick question on the theory test now, it's such a popular belief!). I know people who speed because they have good brakes (what about the idiot behind you - his brakes have to be as good, if not better!), or corner fast because they have traction control, etc. Don't even get me started on the things I've seen on cars with cruise-control.

        Yes, they can serve a purpose in the right hands. But in the wrong hands they make already-bad drivers much more complacent and deadly.

    2. Flugal
      Thumb Up


      You've read Tom Vanderbilt's "Traffic" too I take it? (At least, that's where I read about the steering wheel spike suggestion).

      Excellent and interesting book.

    3. fridaynightsmoke

      Hurr hurr spikey steering wheel hurr

      Thank you AC for repeating this concept which has already been outlined by at least a dozen other commenters above.

      I eagerly await all of your further suggestions for perhaps running mains electrical cables uninsulated at waist level, liberally greasing escalator treads, or perhaps fitting large tubs of boiling acid alongside all beds (to catch people careless enough to fall out of bed) in order to instill a sense of necessary care and attention into the populace.

  10. itzman

    Got the T shirt

    ..same happened to me but different. Some kind of random cosmic ray triggered 'safe mode' ..50mph max and little above a crawl acceleration wise..stopped switched off, waited a minute, restarted..fault gone.

    I believe the computer was updated prior to tat as part of a general recall..

  11. Tim #3

    This reminds me of problems with stability control systems & how serious faults within those are yet there is no datalogging built in. It amazes me that the manufacturers got that past the regulators.

  12. Arrrggghh-otron

    OBDC-II tool

    I always keep an OBDC-II tool in the glove box of my wife's modern VW after a horrible bill from a VW dealer ship that could have paid for said tool, just for the privilege of telling me that it was a transient fault (misfire).

    If it shows an engine fault on the dash I can plug in and read the error code and if it isn't anything serious I clear the code and carry on as normal - it is usually a misfire or air/lambda sensor glitch and it seems the on board computer tries to compensate for the bad data making the car run like a bag of spanners, clear the data and hey presto - runs perfectly again!

    Saves a bloody fortune! (Note: the car doesn't do this often, maybe once every few months so it isn't worth spending £600+ replacing all the sensors/injectors etc to try and track down an occasional fault)

    1. Trollslayer

      Not fixing the fault?

      Sounds risky

    2. Geoff Campbell Silver badge

      That's almost certainly a failing lambda sensor.

      About £20 to buy, 15 minutes to replace. And doing so will probably increase your fuel economy.

      Oh, and that's OBD-2 - On Board Diagnostics. They're great fun to play with, and can be bought in Bluetooth varieties that talk to an app on an Android phone.


      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        £20 for a Lambda! please tell me where!

        1. Geoff Campbell Silver badge

          They seem to have gone up a bit since I last bought one.

          However, they are tens of pounds, rather than the multiple hundreds that main dealers try and charge. Here's an example at £42.60 including VAT:


          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            They seem to have come down if you ask me..

            I'm more used to seeing them for £60+ maybe that's just the type for zetecs...

            (I have built a few kit cars, with engines rescued from writeoffs unfortunately scrap dealers cut the exhausts just after the manifold to extract the cats.. so I don't get the Lambdas...)

  13. TRT Silver badge
    Big Brother

    The cruise control on my Prius goes into an odd error mode every now and again. The light will flash on the dash and the computer refuses to take command of the throttle. The solution is to stop, shutdown, reboot. Simple. I don't know what causes it, but it seems to be when you have to suspend the cruise and there's some sort of differential input on the axle torque/position sensors. In a Prius, it's unnervingly obvious that the computer is in control - it can even park itself hands-off.

  14. Eddie Edwards

    How do you normally drive?!

    "That computer has legitimately saved my life on more than one occasion."

    I wonder how many other lives your traction control has saved. My computer's allowed me to avoid a low-speed shunt on a couple of occasions, but if it ever saved my life I'd be taking a cold hard look at the way I drive.

    1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

      Fair question!

      I normally the spedx limit +/- 5%. -30% on a snowy day. But this is Edmonton. Our roads are covered in snow/ice 6 months of the year. Some times, a water main can break, and the roads become sheets of black ice that you can't see. Even at 40kph, if you are going down the hill to the underpass at 97th st and Yellowhead, you can (and almost every other week someone does) slam into the concrete pillars.

      Unlike most folks, I am driving a fairly light, not-going-to-win-a-fight-with-a-concrete-pillar kind of car.

      At 40kph, I'd still be dead.

      That conputer has prevented a few, especially during my early years.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    One of the reasons why I drive an old Land Rover

    No fancy electronics, no central locking, no ABS, ESP <insert car related acronym here>, electric windows, nothing. The lights don't even come on when you open a door.

    And therefore, very little to go wrong. And what does go wrong, I can fix myself as the engine is simple, there are no plastic covers hiding everything.

    On the downside, it's noisy, slow and leaks (both wind and water).

    But I love it.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Same with me...

      Except that it's the Austrian equivalent, the Puch G. Mind you, the noise isn't a problem any more since I 'm almost deaf due to too much driving with the G ;-)

    2. Stu_The_Jock

      Ah, the old faithfull Landy

      Which if memory serves me right is the only car you can change basically EVERY part on (including the beams in the chassis) and as long as the VIN tag stays with the "vehicle" remains the same vehicle. . . and incidently the ONLY vehicle to complete the Top Gear offroad "drive up the muddy farm track" test a few years back. . . . BMW X5 - FAIL, Merc - Fail, Mitsubishi - fail . . 1960s Landy, no prob, then again in 2WD mode . . .

      On the other hand, comfort was not a design issue !

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Lights coming on when you open the door? You HAVE an interior light?

      Although the lights and electrics staying ON when one removes the key from the ignition is an issue which has left me requiring a jump start on at least one occasion...

  16. Nigel R

    "That computer has legitimately saved my life on more than one occasion"

    So how plausible and accurate is the rest of the story then?

    1. Chris Hance

      But if they save him now, they can continue to prepare for the coming biocide without the meatbags suspecting anything. Sounds plausible to me.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I didn't know they had a vehicle range as well

  18. Anonymous Coward

    That computer has legitimately saved my life

    I question why you are driving in such a way as to require a computer to take over and save your life. Have we really reached the point where we trust computers so much that we actively push the limits of our driving ability knowing that the computer will save us? Is that a good thing?

    I can barely imagine a situation where pushing the boundaries of safe driving is warranted on public roads. I can even less imagine a situation where we would push our limits even further and trust a computer to save us when we go to far. It is ridiculous. Is our time so precious that saving a few minutes off our journeys is worth risking our lives?

    Undoubtedly cars are safer now than they have ever been in almost every possible way. Impact protection has saved uncountable lives. I fear that dependence on technology and slowly removing driver responsibility is likely to lead to more crashes. To improve safety either completely automate our traffic systems quickly rather than this gradual implementation or invest in better training and retraining during a drivers lifetime. How can we possibly believe that someone trained at the age of 17 is still going to be a safe driver 30.. 40... 50 years down the line? There should be some kind of mandatory class every 10 years to just refresh peoples abilities and to point out areas they may wish to work on.

    1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

      Agree 100%

      Could we also throw in a course: "new cars, what they can do, how they can fail, things that are different than what you learned on?" A 2005 [make/model redacted] is a heck of a lot different than the 1986 Crown Vic Police Interceptor I learned on and had for a first car! :D

    2. chr0m4t1c


      It's a well-documented phenomenon known as Risk Compensation.

      Basically, if you feel that you are safer (or less likely to come to harm) then you will behave in a more risky way to ultimately balance out the risks.

      It's why (for example) you might see a 4x4 driver tailgating more, or driving significantly over the speed limit even though their vehicle is (ironically) considerably less safe in those conditions than a normal saloon.

      5th Gear did a series of tests where they crashed 4x4s into standard saloons in a series of typical accident scenarios, in each case the crash experts said the occupants of the saloon would almost certainly be killed instantly (sounds good for the 4x4 driver, doesn't it), but they also said that the 4x4 occupants would probably die from their injuries before any emergency services managed to get to the scene (not so good after all).

    3. Vic

      > Have we really reached the point where ... we actively push the limits of our driving ability


      It's called "risk balancing"; the safer we feel in an environment, the more risk our behaviour until we meet a perceived level of risk we deem appropriate. And we're not very good at judging risk.

      There was an interesting study I saw a few years back, comparing driver behaviour at level crossings to the amount of train line they could see. It's a fairly obvious conclusion that them more they can see - the better appraised of the risk they are - the better they will perform.

      And the study showed exactly the opposite. The more line the car drivers could see, the more they pushed their luck. Improving visibility just lead to more people going through red lights, with a dramatically increased probability of collision. I don't think there were enough actual collisions to prove an increased rate with any statistical significance, but nevertheless, the number of cars ignoring the lights increased, and the average gap between train and car in those events decreased. Neither of those figures is good.


  19. Anonymous Coward

    Now if it could only have said...

    "I'm sorry I can't let you do that Dave."

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Had a 406 once that got confused because I put a wheel up a kerb trying to get in a junction where the person getting out was taking most of the road. Because this, the ABS light persisted.

    Cured by reboot. Well, turned up to work, turned off ignition, went to go home later, ignition on, ABS light went off as normal.

    I agree somewhat with other posters, you knew the car had a tendency to go into limp mode, so ideally you should've avoided those 50mph roads and avoided the level crossing. If something had happened (for example, the person behind you rammed you because you slowed from 50 to 20), the insurance company would not have been sympathetic.

    For all those who work in software, think as you are about to get on your next plane, think "what if the flight control systems were built by the software company I work for"?

    I'd be getting the boat! (hence AC...)

    1. Vic

      > "what if the flight control systems were built by the software company I work for"?

      I can do that. I can watch supersonic fighters at air displays and wonder if they still contain my code...


  21. Fastdruid

    An IBM engineer once told me that sometimes either the firmware gets in such a state that it gets stuck in a loop and cannot 'see' a way out. The only fix *is* a power cycle at that time. Nothing really any different from the programs running on your 'PC' but you don't think about the chips inside a device getting stuck in a loop.

    While that was for a tape library the same applies to the firmware running on anything from your washing machine to the computers in a car.

    1. /dev/null

      That's what watchdog timers are for.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      And you believed that the IBM engineer actually *knew* what the firmware was doing?

      I won't knock them too hard, because a lot of them are good guys and are seriously overworked, but I often get the impression that rather than responding to a direct question about something they really don't know about with an 'I don't know', they improvise, and often end up talking complete bollocks.

      Nowadays, IBM engineers are board-swappers. They get an action plan and some parts, and go through a defined procedure swapping them. If the problem is not fixed, they are *required* to call in to their escalation path, because they can be disciplined if they attempt to use their own initiative, especially if it makes the situation worse in some way.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Briefly worked for big blue.

        A pensions company that buys up startups and attempts to integrate their products into it's portal. That's how I see it.

  22. Conrad Longmore

    Wheel slippage

    I've heard of this problem before, in this case it was somebody who had missed an exit on an temporarily empty-A road and was attempting a three point turn across the road. One of the wheels slipped and the computer crashed, leaving the car stranded in the middle of what suddenly started to become a very busy A-road. In this case that car involved was a Smart, so the computer inside was presumably Mercedes derived.

  23. Dick Pountain

    We're probably further away from making programming into a proper engineering discipline than we were in the 1990s (thanks partly to primitive web development tools). Even if we did make it a certified engineering discipline we'll never be able to guarantee 100% bug-free software - that's why embedded systems for aerospace make so much use of redundancy and other tricks.

    Wherever a computer is in control of life-threatening risks, as in a car, you should be able to override it *completely* with a single big red button - that means leaving the mechanical systems intact alongside the "fly-by-wire" ones, so it fails safe. I wonder this is true of the latest generation of traction-controlled etc etc etc cars?

    1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

      @Dick Pountain

      To be fair, there is a great big "TRAC OFF" button that kills the computer. I seriously hope ever car with a computer has one...

      1. Vic

        > I seriously hope ever car with a computer has one...

        I don't. Some of those computers are needed.

        Modern engines don't run without a computer; it's the only way to get enough accuracy to achieve the power/economy/emissions values we now demand.


  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Obviously NOT a Renault then...

    cos if it was it would have simply just broken down....

    or have bitched about an ABS/ESP fault In much the same way your wife does when you forget your anniversary/her birthday! ;)

    or dropped to idiot/Limp home mode...

    The 1st rule of stupid computer cars... UNPLUG the effin Battery (COLD REBOOT) and all the faults go away.

    1. Onid

      which renault?

      I have a scenic phase2 (2000 model) where I've done all sorts of silly driving in snow even took out fuse of abs to try with and without - loads a fun but nothing like having to reset it like this... the only thing have had to replace HT coils three times now it's on a set of bosch HT which seem to be fine now.

      But I drive just for practice with it in snow and ice even going crazy wheelspin intentionally but not seen this behaviour as described in this article - whichever this car is it's computer is shite. Though I agree the driver should not have continued to drive and place himself in such perilous danger when he knew the car was misbehaving.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Actually, you are wrong...

    ... to call for turning it off and on again. This thing has so much power that it cannot be allowed to fail, so it has no excuse for getting confused.

    Where we (wrongly, I think already) simply accept excessively poor performance from certain software systems we use to make (actually not very good either) general computing hardware work for us --we very clearly can do better but it's not the most dependable systems that managed to get commoditised-- that "oh let's just fix it and move on (to the next BSOD)" attitude will get you killed in a road accident. Already, at least one jaguar already managed to wrap itself around a tree due to, indeed, a genuine BSOD.

    This is simply not acceptable.

    In fact, I'd argue the embedded thing is no longer a computer. It's a part of the car, must be treated as such, and either must not affect handling in any way or must be part of the training for handling the apparatus. If it distracts the driver by requiring hitting switches to avoid getting killed on railway crossings, however infrequently, then that too must be part of the training.

    Of course this is a weak argument to make to people who've learned to drive from friends and family on a learner's licence. Over here it's a far more formal process with actual instructors and specially modified cars (and consequently at higher expense, but I digress). Some countries even include a mandatory first aid course.

    It is related to several proposed laws to put speed limiters in cars to force people to "drive safely", that inevitably will cause accidents by their inevitable kicking in at exactly the wrong moment, and to exposing inexperience in its pilots when the airbus system decides flying is too hard and let the puny humans try.

    Should training not be feasible for some reason, especially then, but otherwise also, this applies: Either you make the system such that it does what it does as part of the larger thing and it does not fail, ever, on pain of liability for the manufacturer for anything the system causes, or it simply doesn't get to interfere with operating the thing in any way or form.

    This brings the liability question back: If the system acts and it causes something that clearly wasn't the intention, who do you sue? People have long proposed and equally long opposed making software engineers liable for their produce. I think that is not necessarily a good idea in the general computer related case for a variety of reasons, starting with the general purpose nature of "the computing tool" and its complex intertwining of many layers written by many different people, not all of them proficient. As of yet it is not practical and would cause a lot of harm to innovation and such; it possibly would do more harm than help the state of general purpose computing.

    But for a specific appliance, you can very well do that. For ABS on-board computers? Sure. They make a hash of things, it's a defect in the car as a whole and so the manufacturer is liable. If that means a massive expansion of duty to care for the software running the thing for the entire life of the car, so be it. If that makes software a lot less cost effective than previously thought, well, now we know; otherwise it'll remain a hidden cost in lives.

    Manufacturers should already require every dealer to report malfunctions back to the factory and they must do something useful with those reports. I don't know whether they do, but they should.

    In fact, I quite like the German approach to engineering: By law an apparatus must be signed off on by someone licensed to sign off on such things and if the thing zaps your pet and you can prove it was due to a designed-in defect, the guy who set his signature is personally liable.

    This doesn't work well for general computing, perhaps due to the shoddy state of software there in general as well as the poorly-managed complexity, as well as the general nature of the setup. But for some software-run chip-for-brains that's effectively part of something with a well-defined purpose, like a car or even a toaster or something, it would work, and as soon as lives are at stake, even moreso.

    In fact, medical equipment is another of those applications where appliances abound that then turn out to run a shoddy desktop environment emulator underneath that adds nothing to its functioning but does detract from its reliability, or that are sprouting things like wireless interfaces and then turn out to be influencable over it without authorisation, or to fail to ignore interference, or whatnot. It's all far less robust than we'd like to think --especially given the price paid for the fancy equipent-- and we're not trying hard enough to outright break these things so that we might improve them.

    Laws may help, but attitude is even more important, and we're still far too accepting of poor performance due to software and such in things where you really don't want interference, especially not from the embedded computers running the show. This is not new; we've known for decades that this was the case, we just haven't realised it. Time we started acting on it.

    1. Sir Runcible Spoon


      Thesis submissions are next door.

      At least I know you don't twit!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "at least one jaguar already managed to wrap itself around a tree due to, indeed, a genuine BSOD."

      Source? I could do with a laugh..

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Audi's almost certainly have a "limp mode" as well as I assume they probably share a lot of the electronics across the whole VAG range and my Skoda has gone into limp mode twice and had to go in to get coil packs replaced under warranty - turned out, according to some googling I did, that VAG had received a dodgy batch of these from Bosch - seemed that Audi customers potentially affected were called in to have a preventative install of new coil packs but at the Skoda end of the range we were left until we had a failure. Once coil pack fails then I assume unignited fuel comes out in the exhaust and the emissions sensors detect something wrong and attempt to save the planet by limiting you to 2000rpm - which is just about enough to get you to a short distance.

    Had similar issue of a Vauxhall recently (7 year old Zafira, emissions warning light came on and when I took it in they determined it needed a replacement coil pack) ... but, especially as warning light came on 60 miles from home on M4, they just warn you and don't enter limp mode

    1. John Arthur

      Not saving the planet...

      ...but probably saving your catalytic converter from being poisoned by neat fuel.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Who is to blame?"

    So - aware that your car was malfunctioning, erratic, and dangerous - you continued to drive it (putting yourself and other people at risk) rather than call for roadside assistance?

    1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

      Roadside assistance

      They were summoned; but the only remotely safe place to stop was across those tracks. It's hard to describe without giving a thesis on the horrible design of this road/intersection, but suffice it to say that blinkers on in that intersection is more likely to get you killed than the train.

      Now, stupid civic design, that's a whole other rant...

      1. Onid

        give us a streetview point / google maps then we can see exactly where u were

        as per title

  28. Schultz

    Save mode

    From the description of it, the engineers messed up on this one. If there are problematic readouts, the car might go into some kind of 'save mode', but it should never behave erratically. So some engineer failed to do his job on this one.

    I once had my Mitsubishi act up on me, wouldn't go beyond 20 km/h. After having it towed, I read in the manual, that a hard reset (disconnecting the battery for a minute) "is not recommended", i.e. would have been the proper solution to the problem :).

  29. Minophis

    Who is to blame?

    This is clearly a system fault some of the commenters on this thread should try reading the article again. The problem developed on the journey so no-one was ignoring the "service me" warning for to long. Randomly jumping between 20kph and normal speed is not a "limp mode" and if it occurs unexpectedly on a motorway is a fantastic way to kill a lot of people. I'm also not sure how you tell if one of your wheels is parked on a patch of black ice when traction control and abs are working very hard to make sure you don't notice it at all. As for being "too feckin reliant on you cars technology" pretty much all modern cars today use embedded computers and you can't switch them off. You are forced to be reliant on the car's technology the moment you sit in the driver's seat. I do agree it would have been wiser to find a safe place to pull over as soon as the problems started however cars are used by a range of users, young and old, wise and foolish. A safety critical embedded system available to the general public should be designed with this in mind. It needs to be rugged, fault tolerant and forgiving

    Speaking as software test manager with 16 years of experience I would say that the project manager and the test manager should both be answering some very hard questions. Embedded computers in cars that cover such areas as engine management, traction control and anti-lock brakes are perfect examples of safety critical systems. Such systems require a disproportionate amount of testing using very rigorous risk analysis techniques (I would definitely include FMEA amongst those techniques). These systems are supposed to operate correctly in a huge range of conditions. The idea that one wheel spinning much faster that the other because of a small patch of slippery road under one of the tyres was not catered for or that the system could be placed in the state where it was behaving so erratically is shocking.

    1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge


      At the end of the day, I really wish my car had an error tone – and separate error lamp – for computer-related codes. Whether the code is mechanical, electrical or computer based, my vehicle has one lamp: maintenance required. A lamp that was already on because she needed an oil change.

      Not only that, but I wish I knew my car’s computer could “fail” in this mode. I mean, I know how the thing works, but typically it will kick in for 1-2 seconds with a distinctive beeping. Apparently, it only does the beeping thing when it detects a certain kind of traction loss condition. (Beeping occurs when it applies brakes, bot when it is “only” throttling down.)

      Should I have known that? Hell yes! Why didn’t I? Nobody ever told me, and it wasn’t laid out in the manual. (At least not remotely so plainly.) Honestly, I wish they covered these issues in driver’s ed. I would gladly pay the money to take a course covering my model of car’s little quirks.


      The entire thing was a learning experience. In hindsight, there is lots I should have done differently, many things I’d wish I’d known. But I really do think that there needs to be some serious consideration of “how much knowledge will the people using your device have? Where do they get that knowledge? How critical is that knowledge to the proper functioning of your design?”

      And I’d like to meet the civil engineer who designed that intersection. I have questions about how he ever thought it was safe for someone whose car just went splork.

      Additionally, for all the folks who are convinced that they'll "just know" when they have a wheel on a (likely very small) patch of black ice: get over yourselves. You won't. Ask any Canadian. The point of it being "black ice" is that you simply cannot see it or detect it beforehand. No matter how superman you think you are. Now, you have some bit of this stuff under a wheel at a red light, there is zero possibility you know that it is there.

      That wheel spins out while the other doesn't? On my car, it doesn't make a different sound or provide any different feedback than "regular acceleration from stop." Indeed, it didn't "sit there for a while, then go." Nope, I pushed the pedal, she went forward. Didn't give me grief until the part of acceleration from stop where I should have surpassed 20kph.

      So from a user feedback standpoint there simply was no way to know a fault had occurred other than erratic behaviour. It really isn’t a cut-and-dry situation. Thus the question: “who is to blame?” Some blame has to be mine…but how much? What should I have known, and when? Where should I have gone to learn what I needed to know? Where do those resources exist? Why didn’t I have a handly little paper detailing how I could access these vital information resources when I bought my car?

      I don’t have solutions, or even a sure place to heap “blame.” Just a lot of questions, and some philosophising.

      Oh, and a copy of that computer on order from an online retailer. So I can go over it in the lab with a bloody micrometer.

  30. patrick_bateman

    Let me guess, you use an apple pc?

    another story of a user not fully understanding what they are dealing with and trying to push on.


    1. Sean Baggaley 1


      Because everyone who drives a car is clearly expected to know every inch of its construction and mechanical operation, as well as having a complete printout of every line of code in every single computer!


  31. Andus McCoatover

    I haven't owned a car for years...

    Can't understand all this computer malarkey for a 'horseless carriage'.

    Last time I serviced one (my Rover 2000) I had to use a set of feeler gauges to set the points, and adjust the distributor to get the engine running correctly.

    Ask the 'yoof of today' to do that, they wouldn't have a clue.

    1. Matthew 3

      Which is why removing the rotor arm is such a great anti-theft system. In the old days it'd foil a thief by requiring them to carry a spare - but today's ones don't even open the bonnet*.

      *that's a 'hood' to you 'merkins.

      1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

        Surely you mean 'used to be'

        Modern cars have fully electronic ignition systems, so don't have any form of rotor arm at all!

        Spark is controlled by thyristors (or are they old-hat as well), and directed to the correct cylinder without mechanical intervention. Timing is taken from a some non-moving rotational sensor looking at either one of the cam shafts, or the crank shaft.

        1. Matthew 3


          I don't mean 'used to be' at all.

          My (admittedly old) car doesn't automatically replace its components just because newer cars use a different technology. So it still does use a rotor arm.

          1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

            OK, my car actually has a basic rotor as well

            but it's so old that nobody in their right mind would think to steal it!

  32. Jacqui

    Volvo 760 turbo 1986 Uk model

    This had ABS but on heavy packed snow the fron wheels (it was a RWD auto) would go into judder and slowly crawl forward no matte rhow hard you braked. The "trick" was to brake then apply the parking brake and if need be put it into neutral.

    Only ever happened to me twice but its prettycary to have a big car like this not stop no matte rhow hard you press the brake pedal!


    p.s A friend had a certain model of french estate car and was having trouble with engine performance. I did a web search for him and found the problem. If the car is not given a good welly down the motorway at least once a month, a sensor in the "cat" will limit the engine to 30HP - down from 120+HP! The "fix" is to pay the main deal some 500UKP to reset the sensor.

    If this fails, the sensor/cat/... is replaced at a cost of 1500+UKP. The car is worth ~600UKP.

    He also had major problem with canbus resulting the boot randomly opening so he sold the car on as spare or repair.

  33. Timmay
    Paris Hilton


    I love it when Americans write "semi" when referring to lorries/trucks - it's fine when said with an American accent (ie. sem-eye), but when reading it (and with my brain's British voice) it sounds like something phallic, which makes the following slightly chucklesome and leaves me feeling quite immature:

    "What if my computer had made such a decision while going 100kph on the highway closely followed by a semi?"

  34. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    You do realise that the ECUs come from a handful of suppliers don't you? And that the amount of 'manufacturer-specific' code is actually rather small? So, switching from 'Mercedes to Audi' (for example) is unlikely to change much of the actual software being run?

    Just asking.

    Best Regards,

    Someone who works in Automotive Software and wishes therefore to remain AC

  35. Blubster

    Rise of the machines

    This is the beginning of the word-wide domination of computers over mankind. This car clearly made an attempt to kill the car's occupant but it's limited (for now) intelligence and computing capacity made it fail in the attempt. Connecting it to an analyser merely allowed it to access another PC and no doubt the interweb so that it could learn from it's mistake.

    Trevor Pot wants to watch his step from now on.

  36. cowslayer


    Way too many people here criticising modern cars, stating that you should learn how to drive better instead of owning a car with all the fancy gizmos. It is becoming clear to me that the reason we don't have the so promised flying cars is that not even el reg readers would by one, unless of course they were entirely mechanical.

    I for one value the modern innovations inside my car, and as such put my trust and life into the engineering it has been through. To move into the future, putting a big manual override button on the dash will never work if we want cars to drive autonomously or perhaps take off. If the software or engineering has issues, they need to be resolved, not removed.

    1. Dick Pountain

      >if we want cars to drive autonomously or perhaps take off.

      As visitors to the 1961 Monza Grand Prix would tell you, cars driving autonomously and taking off has been possible for many years, and is not to be encouraged.

    2. Intractable Potsherd

      "... want to drive autonomously"??

      Why the hell would anyone want to drive autonomously? That is definitely not something to aspire to, and a good reason to keep everything mechanical.

      Mine's the one with the keys for the old manually-controlled car in the pocket.

  37. pordzio

    Well, I know of at least one car, that is lethal in dangerous situations, Namely, tme Merc A-class (older ones):

    There's also a link in the comments to the whole test this clip comes from.

  38. Andus McCoatover

    Isn't this what happened on AF477?

    Confused by conflicting information, the computer on the plane basically said "Fuc*k this for a game of soldiers, I'm outta here! Over to you blokes".

    Problem was, the 'blokes' weren't sufficiently experienced to realise the severity problem, being reliant on the 'puuter to do the flying. The rest is history.

    We're too bloody reliant on these systems, and not reliant on our own skills.

    In the case of lessons learned from AF477 (and others) I think it should be mandatory for pilots to do something like 1/10 flights without autopilot, to re-learn how to fly a *real* plane, rather than a simulator.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Yes, and no.

      Where the airbus at least had a well-defined fall-back that actually gave the pilots _more_ leeway (including for fscking up), the car 'puter gets confused and _limits_ what the car can do "for safety". "Taking safeguards away" (and announcing loudly that this happens) is something quite different from "crippling the device as a 'safeguard'" with as a result a car that suddenly performs way under spec, unexpectedly suddenly so. With full safety features on you can't even stall an airbus, whereas without them you can but you can equally well fly safely (if only you knew how to). With full ABS active it might save you from getting stuck in a dangerous slip, but with the bloody thing confused you can't drive safely at all; vehicles suddenly slowing well under the going average are actively dangerous, and if unexpectedly slow to get out of the way even moreso.

      Yes, I would expect airbus pilots to be experienced in flying under whatchamacallit "ALTERNATIVE LAW". That and a few other things, but I wrote an (also overly long) comment about that with that article. The similarity between car and airbus is that it is both our automation improvements that are dropping the ball. The differences are in how much you can still do about it given a "confused" automaton, and the risks are therefore different also. The airbus looks to be the safer bet, actually.

  39. b166er

    @phuzz, Fenton?

    @Bassey, highly unlikely that if you're doing (hopefully) <30mph in an area with 'driveways', that you'll end up with anything worse than a cracked bumper (unless you're not watching the road (and pavement) as carefully as you should).

    Also, I'm not 'hollier' than anyone, though I can get a bit prickly when accused of such!

  40. JeffyPooh

    The false assumption spotted...

    "The mechanic ran a pile of diagnostics and came back to me with results..."

    The false assumption here is that the mechanic has necessarily correctly diagnosed the actual root cause (i.e. the theory that the car is fundamentally designed incorrectly). Seems highly unlikely.

    It's 80%/20% odds that the root cause of the problem is an intermittent sensor (or wiring to same). A fundamental design flaw is possible, but far less likely. It's trivial to design a traction control system to keep up with a real-world wheel no matter how fast it accelerates or spins. The computer probably gets a pulse every few degrees of rotation for each wheel. Spinning on black ice is part of the basic design inputs.

    1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

      The mechanic

      The mechanic in question is probably the best trained and qualified for this make/model of car in the city. He has over 30 years experience as a mechanic with this make of car and is highly sought after. (He gets someone trying to headhunt him on a very regular basis.)

      The chances that he has misdiagnosed this - and trust me, he looked at the sensors as well as ran his own tests - are so slim as to be nonexistent.

      The other issue here is that no, the computer isn't really designed incorrectly at all. That was never the point of the article. The computer sensed something bizarre and did exactly what it should have (throttle things down) to prevent further damage etc. The design issues are about reporting what the computer is doing – and why – to the driver.

      The computer did its job. The driver (me) had no idea that the computer was even involved here, let alone why it was doing what it was doing. There is the issue. The question is not one of “make the computer capable of handling every possible situation.” That isn’t possible. The question is “where does the burden lie in ensuring that ‘what is occurring and why’ is properly communicated to the user?”

      Should the communication of that information be a required aspect of the design of the computer system? Should this be buried in a user manual or EULA and we simply wash our hands of it, telling the user it is their problem? Should the user have to know every possible operatin and failure mode of the computer in thier car? Should we offer training, or make training mandatory? Who pays for that training?

      Those are important questions relating to design (and real engineering!) that are only going to become more important – not less – as out society becomes more computerised.

  41. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I agree that car computers should fail in a safer way, but shouldn't the title really have been "*The moment I nearly caused my car to crash because I am too much of a dick to call road rescue, putting other road user in lethal danger as well as myself"?

  42. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    If you'd realised it was the computer you may have tried to fix it yourself instead of taking it to the expert in the garage.

    You would have become what you despise!

    So it's good that the computer's existence is hidden from the user

  43. Jamie Kitson
    Thumb Down


    "...we blame the user. While perhaps acceptable when dealing with PCs and smartphones, our blame-the-victim culture must not be allowed to extend to embedded systems."

    So because it happened to you, you're not to blame, however, if it happens to those lusers you look down on, that's ok.

    I really don't see the difference between UI on an embedded system and a PC/smartphone, they should both be helpful and as easy/stright forward to use as possible. You want your car to be easy to use so that you can use it, while you want a PC to be hard to use to keep you in a job and your ego high. It's a contradiction if you ask me.

  44. Big_Boomer

    Soon you will all be ex-drivers

    The computer is winning and the sooner the better.

    Humans are in general pretty crap drivers. Our reflexes are slow, we cannot concentrate for more than a few seconds and we simply don't care enough to pay attention to what we are doing.

    So, the obvious solution is to take the human out of the equation completely. Even if all the computers crashed every day it would still be a safer/faster/smoother/more economical/more environmentally friendly way of getting about.

    I ride motorcycles and whilst I would hate to not be able to ride on the roads any more I would willingly exchange that for the ability to not get cut up every damned day by some dipshit who can't seem to understand that driving is a SKILL, not a right, and that skill needs to be maintained and practiced.

    So, in the automotive world I say bring on our Digital Masters so I can sell my road bike and buy a trackday loony machine. :D

    1. Andus McCoatover

      Humans are in general pretty crap drivers

      Surely, you mean "Drivers are pretty crap humans".

      Better to take a pride in your driving, I'd think. But, sure, sell the road bike and buy..

      a horse! Problem solved in an instant!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Plus ça change...

      My first car was an old and very shabby Bentley (but still the best car I've ever owned). The owner's handbook prefaced the servicing instructions with "Have your driver carry out the following procedures ..."

      If I could ever afford a chauffeur, that's the way I would travel. Even so a skilled professional driver would be cheaper than a computer system able to give the same level of performance. The fully computer driven transport system exists, it's called the driverless train, tube, metro etc. Great stuff but not the same as a chauffeur driven car or driving a motorbike on the open road!

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      'ex-drivers' in the 'ex-parrot' sense by the sound of this article.

  45. Mage Silver badge

    Off Button on Dashboad?

    Lucky you.

    Some are only reset if you disconnect the battery!

    Some can only be reset by diagnostics computer.

    Air bag warning on on car at least can only be reset by Power off, disconnection of sensor, repower, power off, reconnect, repower.

  46. Tim

    Needs warning lights

    My Alfa did this to me once in Italy. It got confused when I braked hard with the nearside wheels on a gravelly verge while the others stayed on the road. It was kind enough to flash up some interesting lights on the dash, so I turned it off and back on again and all was well. Had your traction control/DSP/whatever light been flashing while you were driving along at 20mph on a straight city street you might have been inclined to try the same. I wonder why your car didn't do that; every so-equipped car I've driven puts up lights when those systems activate (which is quite often when you drive over ice or mud or gravel in the country; I'm not a tail-happy boy racer by any means.)

    Still, it's pretty bloody stupid to drive a broken car across a railway line, don't you think?

  47. spanner
    IT Angle

    Not the computer

    You don't blame the car when you get pissed and have a crash. Why blame the computer when its does what the programmer tells it to do. Programmer error!

    1. Ben Tasker

      Computers don't kill people

      Programmers Kill People

  48. Tom Melly

    More than one occasion?!?

    "That computer has legitimately saved my life on more than one occasion."

    This is the bit that scares me... I'm tempted to forgive it as hyperbole, but imagine the same statement about, say, smoke detectors saving one person's life on more than one occasion. I'd humbly suggest that they might be doing something wrong...

    1. Notas Badoff

      need more imagination

      Warrantied electronic device shorts while turned off, ignites stand, which ignites...

      Neighbor in next door apartment decides to light up his death.

      I really think quite a lot of the above commentators' lives have been far too dull so far. May you live in more interesting times...

  49. The Fuzzy Wotnot

    Who's to blame? Rod Serling!!

    Anyone else seen the Twilight Zone episode "A Thing About Machines"? Man loses marbles and swears the machines are ganging up on him, only to have his car push him into a swimming pool where he drowns!

  50. 27escape
    Thumb Down

    off and on again

    Is not the answer, its a cop out for coders not putting error handling code into their apps.

    Users expect off and on behaviour as it became common practice thanks to windows, now its phones, TVs etc that all have this assumption that it can be fixed by this process. Bugs don't get caught, issues can never be resolved.

    Additionally cars often keep their faults through the off and on process, there is no way to ask the computer to clear faults and try again unless you are a garage.

  51. Pahhh

    Dumb article...

    The conclusion of the article and the immediate assumption that the firmware was written by some spotty kid without proper testing is plain dumb. I have no doubt that car electronics dont go through the same rigurous testing and backup systems that planes do, but I'm fairly confident that they will be given a professional effort. Will it catch every event? No, but again seems that they dont with aircraft either.

    Modern car electronics by and large hugely improve safety. Both ABS and Traction control. The use of traction control is more subtle as at times it comes in without you realising (unless you like staring at the dashboard) and helps to keep the car straight. This of course dumbs down driving but thats actually not a bad thing.

    Now, saying all that, I do have my misgivings of traction control. I was in a situation with an Infinity G35 Coupe (its like a Nissan 350Z but 4 seats) where the traction control did something very unexpected. I was comming off a ramp on the highway and there was torrent of water going across the slipway. I eased off the power before I got to the stream expecting at the worse to aquaplane. What actually happened was that the car spun violently right and so harshly that I immediately hit the side wall making a pretty bad mess of the car.

    I am certain that the traction control detected one of the back wheels spinning and applied breaking causing the spin. I have over the years been in situations where there is a full or partial aquaplane and never experienced anything like it.

    On the flip slide my wife's Focus has traction control. I think it works spectacularly well. There are some performance cars that are undrivable without traction control.

    Conclusion: ABS / Traction control systems arent perfect but are better to have than not.

  52. AndrueC Silver badge

    The ABS on my first Honda once got confused. I pulled to halt at a junction and stopped on some gravel. There was never any risk of me overshooting but it did trigger the ABS. The odd bit was that the ABS continued to operate even while I was stationary. Thankfully it stopped as soon as I released the brake pedal but it was odd.

    My current Honda is definitely at the mercy of a computer. VTEC and two spark plugs per cylinder with a variable delay between them. I think I read that the ECU is also responsible for gear ratio selection (it's a CVT). If the computer fails I doubt the engine will even fire - presumably it's just designed to declutch and expire at the roadside.

    On the plus side it's a Honda so the chances of any failure are pretty slim :)

  53. Microphage

    Software crash nearly caused car crash

    Instead of designing the traction control and ABS in software how about doing it as a 'finite-state machine`

    1. Vic

      > Instead of how about doing it as a 'finite-state machine`

      Errr - you know a significant number of FSMs are built in software, right?


    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Automata tend to rely on having a relatively small set of clearly distinct inputs; it's hard to make them work well with analog data. Sure, you can divide it into various ranges, but that causes erratic behavior when the input oscillates on either side of a threshold. With enough effort you could probably make a finite state machine ABS controller, but I doubt it would be any more reliable or bug-free than any other implementation.

  54. Robin Bradshaw

    Mixed feelings

    I recently had the experience of the ECU in my bike deciding there was something wrong and cutting ignition and fuel to the rear cylinder resulting in a red light on the speedo and a suddenly very lumpy 325cc single cylinder engine.

    After trying the turn it off and on again technique I had to resort to taking the pillion seat of and flicking the switch (which i had added) to put it in dealer mode so i could see the fault code on the speedo's LCD display and look it up on the printout from the service manual i "found" on the internet that I also put under the seat, just to find out what was going on and work out if it was a fatal error or something i could drive home carefully with and fix.

    Turns out it had detected a problem with the spark on the number 2 cylinder and disabled it so you could limp home without incinerating the catalytic converter by pumping unburnt fuel into it.

    Im impressed that the ECU tried its best to fail reasonably gracefully, what im not impressed by is the manufacturers attempts to hide diagnostic information from me, if the ECU has a problem dont just light up a light on the dash to say something is wrong, tell me what thing the ECU thinks is broken so i can check it.

    Admittedly a motorcycle speedo is a bit of a sparse way to convey information but most modern cars have an lcd screen and builtin sat nav/media player/tv tuner nonsense installed would it kill them to display what error condition was presenting, hell integrate it into the sat nav and have it announce to the driver "Im sorry dave but i have detected there is no spark on cylinder 2 and plotted a route to the nearest dealer for you, I cannot let you go more than 30mph"

  55. Bango Skank

    ah, my old S-III Landy and shiny Rangie

    didn't as much prevent me from getting stuck as much as enabling me to get stuck in far more interesting ways and in far more obscure places.

    While seatbelts and airbags have shown value, it isn't actually that clear that ABS has saved people on net.

    It seems to have just encouraged them to drive with less care.

  56. This post has been deleted by its author

  57. jzlondon


    I couldn't focus on this article. All I could see were the dodgy conversions.

    12.4mph? Really? Are you sure it wasn't 12.3 or 12.56?

    Convert approximate numbers apprioriately.

  58. IDoNotThinkSo

    Not just limp mode

    I had a VW that cut out completely due to an overheating relay. (Relay 109 if you must know). It provided power to the computer, so when it cut out the engine cut out completely, regardless of where you were (Motorway, wherever). There were no fault codes shown because the computer was switched off before it could raise one.

    Of course, once then ignition was off for a minute, it would start again and the car would behave as if nothing had happened.

    Fortunately there were plenty of others who had experienced this, and posted the solution online, so I replaced it with a new one (which, funnily enough, was much better built).

    Maybe cars should have redundant systems - be interesting to know what the extra expense might be.

  59. Tatsky

    I don't need ABS

    OK, I got sick of reading all the comments along the lines of "I know how to drive, I understand over/under steer etc so I don't need all this ABS/traction control/lane detection" bollocks.

    Yeah you may be a good driver, but surely you feel a lot safer knowing that the other bunch of nupties around you driving 1.5 tonnes of metal have these safety features.

    I don't think a huge percentage of the population understand how to pump the brakes in the event of the wheels locking up/losing traction on ice etc. And knowing how to do this, and doing so in the event of hitting ice is a completely different matter.

    Oh, and regarding limp mode. I think most cars manufactured in the last 10-15 years has a limp home mode. It is there to protect the engine and mechanicals in the event of a failure being detected, which could cause further damage or loss of control if normal driving is continued.

    In the authors instance, as soon as the problem occurred they should have pulled over safely (to ensure their own safety, and the safety of other road users), and then worked to resolve the issue.

    That's my 2 bob/cents

  60. Skoorb

    Iron Ring

    FYI, Probably only Canadians will get the Iron Ring reference.

  61. SirDigalot

    my previous car had an interesting issue, i would be driving along and all of a sudden all the warning lights would come on and the speedo/tach would stop working, sometimes the central locking would try to lock also, i kept taking it back to the dealer, everytime they checked even on a test drive, they found nothing, i told them that it sounded like a short somewhere as the issue was very random, but was shrugged off with the 'punters know nothing' look while smiling and saying "yes sir certainly sir, would sir like a coffee, this way to the waiting room sir" luckily they kept giving me a rental for nothing, so i didn't really care, but after a few months of this they had the car for nearly a week, they replaces the BCM which they thought was bad, they were about to throw in the towl and give me a new car, when the 'technician' saw some sparking by the firewall... oh my someone had forgotten to put in a grommet, and hence a couple of wires were shorting causing all the issues! they replaced the loom (under warranty) and i got my car back, it was mentioned in passing that it was what was suggested a few months before by me, but the subject was changed quick!

    I bought a new car 2 months later, even though it suffered no problems after the fix...

    i like having traction control abs and eba as well as a number of other safety features, while i never really have call to use them, (TC in the winter in chicago/midwest, though not nescassary, is very useful though it was fun to turn it all off in the parking lot and have a jolly good romp on the snow) brake assist scared the crap out of me when it engaged, a large truck decided he wanted to be where i am and pulled over, no signal (at highway speeds) i hit the brake quickly, not very hard but firmly (luckily there was no one riding my a$$ - yes, i did check first) and the car loses ALOT of speed real quick no skidding either. so while the best intention os to be fully aware of everything, sometimes you are caught by suprise, besides, without all the cool things and warnings and buttons to push you cannot pretend to be james bond in a traffic jam.

  62. Wensleydale Cheese

    "The only fix *is* a power cycle at that time."


    But as someone who worked in the automotive industry once told me, embedded devices in cars are subject to harsh conditions, with extremes of hot and cold, vibrations etc and so must be programmed "very defensively" - that means to cope with the unexpected.

    Such an embedded system should be able to power cycle itself if it gets really confused.

    1. Vic

      > Such an embedded system should be able to power cycle itself if it gets really confused.

      No, absolutely not.

      Embedded micros that get into a fault condition are *failed*. They should not be re-enabled until they have passed a further self-test.

      That means that they should latch a fault condition until a suitable time for re-test occurs. That usually means a re-start...


      1. Evil Auditor Silver badge


        I beg to differ. If such a device fails, e.g. its own hardware or an essential sensor is broken, it should disable itself indeed. As someone else pointed out, it is better to run without ABS than with a broken one.

        On the other hand, there are critical devices whose software is resetted frequently, e.g. once a second, just in case it gets confused, i.e. crashed. If the device in Trevor's car had been designed like that, it would have long forgotten about the confusing inputs and worked properly again.

        1. Wensleydale Cheese

          I should have said "reset" rather than "power cycle"

          @Evil Auditor

          "On the other hand, there are critical devices whose software is resetted frequently, e.g. once a second, just in case it gets confused, i.e. crashed. "

          Yes, that's what I was trying to explain.

        2. Vic


          > If such a device fails, e.g. its own hardware or an essential sensor is broken, it

          > should disable itself indeed.

          Errr - yes. That's what I said.

          What are you differing about?


          1. Evil Auditor Silver badge

            @Vic & Wensleydale Cheese

            Hmm, maybe i misread one or the other bit... As we are all agreeing now, I wish you a great weekend!

  63. 100113.1537
    Thumb Up

    Very timely commentary -

    - following the Air France crash story where at least one of the contributing factors seems to have been the pilots not realizing that the computer had switched off etc.

    Not sure what the best options are; I certainly don't take kindly to cars doing things without me telling them (I drive a manual, which is getting harder and harder to find in North America), but I accept that ABS brakes are good when you need to steer as well as brake. Risk/benefit issues are all about likelihood and severity of hazard so if the automation reduces the likelihood by a very big amount, on balance we can accept a higher severity of hazard.

    The whole issue of driver.pilot training seems to be the crux of the matter - learning in a fully computerized automatic vehicle (car or 'plane) can leave a lot out that hardly anyone is ever going to need, but will bite you on the ass big time if you suddenly do. For drivers, I doubt we will ever get everyone up to a high level, but for airline pilots - I think they really should know what to do when the autopilot switches itself off. And this comes back to the severity issue - a car getting out of control because the driver can't handle it in "manual" mode is an accident - a 'plane in this situation is a "tragedy". Non-quantitative terms, but I am sure you get my drift.

  64. Local Group

    More than one occasion (2)

    "That computer has legitimately saved my life on more than one occasion."

    I wouldn't be blabbing this all over town, if I were you. Your insurance company will raise your premium or cancel you altogether.

  65. mark fernandes

    Obligatory Big Bang Comment

    "Your check engine light is on..."

  66. G.Y.

    winter mode

    I once had a Volvo 850 go into winter mode (i.e. start off in 3trd gear), with no known way to take it out of that.

    A LONG weekend later, the dealer told me you have to power-cycle the electrics 4-6 times and then the computer resets to sane mode.

    Merging with traffic, when the computer insists on 3rd gear, can be interesting ...

    Problem was nowhere documented.

    The Windows 3-fingered salute would have been a great improvement.

  67. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Professional Design?

    Hell no, mate. Obviously these things need to continue to be designed in Low Cost Countries by teenagers who may not have owned or ever driven a car ... that's the only way to keep costs down where they belong! Who the hell cares about user experience? UE doesn't contribute to ROI.

    Mine's the one with the bonus cheque in the pocket.

  68. Martin Usher
    Thumb Down

    Light Rail Trains have Brakes, too....

    You get collisions between light rail trains and cars when people do dumb things like turn suddenly in front of the train. The train can stop but it can't swerve so you get a collision and by the rule of rail transport the train wins. (....every time)

    If you're stuck on light rail tracks then the train operator is going to see you and stop. Light rail works among people so the vehicles are designed to stop quite quickly and they're driven with the expectation that things are going to get in the way. You're not in much danger.

    (Now if this was a proper level crossing --- say on a curve with 100mph trains passing -- then, sorry, you're toast....)

    1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

      @Martin Usher

      Probably true. Though this is not the type of thing that goes through your mind at the moment of.

  69. Local Group

    Infiniti even has a check light for this:

    It's an icon of a floor mat jammed under a gas pedal. It hasn't lighted up yet.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Your joke isn't very good

      Given that it was Toyota/Lexus that had the floor mat design problems that caused the gas pedal to get stuck, and not Infiniti/Nissan.

      Even then its still not funny, better luck next time and don't give up your day job......

      1. Local Group

        My joke is perfectly fine. Somebody else blew a gasket.

        I still chuckle when I see it. Heh. Heh. A floor mat under as gas pedal.

        Infiniti/Nissan didn't have a problem because they provided a warning light.

        Lexus/Toyota had the problem because they didn't.

        Your sense of humor is being recalled.

  70. John Savard


    Obviously, there should have been some kind of display on the dashboard on which the computer in question explained what it was doing - and why - giving the driver the opportunity to override it.

    I don't care that it is possible to complain that "oh, this would be too complicated".

  71. Johan Bastiaansen

    oh pulease

    On the interwebs, everybody is such a skilled driver that he doesn't need ABS.

    In real life, with only a couple of days of icy roads a year (with the last 2 winters being an exception), the majority of the drivers doesn't have any recent experience with emergency braking in icy conditions.

    But that's all beside the point. ABS isn't really a computer system is it?

    The problem is in the attitude towards safety in these modern times. I know I sound like an old fart, but most people seem to think "it will be alright ". And they’re right, most of the time.

    But safety isn’t about “most of the time”. Safety is about “what if”. And the modern concept of safety seems to based on the notion that the “what if” situation is very unlikely. So, it will be alright.

    An example. I had a very similar situation with relay 109 on my VW tdi acting up, stalling the engine. VW knew there was a problem with it and the dealers were ordered to replace this relay quietly. Perhaps they were compensated. Perhaps not. My dealer didn’t replace the relay and my engine started stalling. I brought the car in, but they couldn’t find anything. I googled it, “relay 109” came up. and I printed it out for them. "Naah, that couldn’t be it." Then the engine shut down on the highway with no hard shoulder. I was lucky and survived. I went to another dealer, and he replaced the relay.

    Everybody was happy. I was happy because I survived. The original dealer was happy because he saved some money not replacing the relay. The other dealer was happy because he got a new customer and he has sold me 3 cars since then.

    So, the problem is only partly with the complexity of modern systems. The major contributor is the “naah, it’ll be alright” attitude.

    1. Vic

      > ABS isn't really a computer system is it?

      Modern ones are.


  72. WhizzMan

    Wrong diagnose

    The symptoms (multiple occurrences of flapping speedo, stalling car, but no blocking wheels) and the multiple sensor error when read out, point to a totally different cause. One single occurrence of black ice will not trigger your speedo to go wild multiple times. There aren't multiple vibration sensors in any engine. There are knock sensors, that will help determine the optimal ignition timing, but those never trigger "errors".

    If you have multiple errors on unrelated sensors and your dash behaving like a UFO just flew by, you have a bad ground problem. Either your engine or the ECU isn't grounded properly. That will make the ECU unable to read out sensors, drive actuators and it will "leak current" to everything attached, such as your speedo dial.

    I'm predicting this will come back, because there is an intermittent grounding problem somewhere in your car. The guy in the garage can't even use his brain anymore and thinks the computer readout must be right and someone here blames it all on a software bug, instead of a simple hardware problem that has happened since cars had electrics built on them. Flaky light bulbs that only work if you whack on the fixture are common. If a car mechanic can't diagnose or fix a simple problem like that, he shouldn't be fixing cars for a living.

  73. Gordon 8

    Hot Air

    There seems to be a lot of hot air being released here (Warning more to come...)

    Yes, there are lessons to be learned from this story

    Car electronics can be confused

    Drivers need to be aware that systems are not perfect

    Always think safety first.

    But there is also some FUD. Let me add some more....

    I get pissed off here in Singapore when my van has an annual inspection (mandatory). The guys who do the inspection don't look after the system and when they have finished the dash has a bunch of warning lights. When I raised it with them it's the rules they have to follow, I am concerned that they are creating an error situation that is not necessary..... I need the van for work, so have no choice.

    What I can do is keep an eye on the systems, and work with a mechanic I trust to check on they systems (I no longer trust the main dealer - they can't spot that the van had a flat tyre....).

    My attitude - Common Sense. Maybe the driving test should also test for Common Sense - too many drivers don't seem to want to use it!

  74. norman

    The Mazda top of the line RX8 GT has one of the best traction control/stability control packages on the market; and is the reason I bought the "low end" RX8 "sport" model that does not have this "feature".......

    1. Jim 59

      rx8 / mx5

      Are you confusing an MX5 with an RX8 ?

  75. CheesyTheClown

    Am I the only one who thinks ABS makes it worse?

    There are very few things in this world worse than sliding on ice and trying to pump the break strategically at intervals to regain control of the car and the ABS limiting your ability to make controlled actions.

    I live in Norway... yesterday it took me 5 minutes to get my car out of my parking space at work because it was so slippery I didn't want to slide into my coworkers cars in the process. I bought the best rated studless tires I could research and yesterday was just beyond their abilities. The car complained to me like mad while driving out of the parking lot about slippery conditions, the ABS fired in and out like crazy and the car was borderline useless.

    With a car without ABS, I'd have had a much easier time

    1. Vic

      > ABS limiting your ability to make controlled actions.

      ABS does no such thing.

      If your wheels are locked, you're sliding. You don't make controlled actions in those circumstances.

      If you manage to unlock the wheels - your ABS will do nothing. It is only operative *whilst you have your wheels locked*.

      > the ABS fired in and out like crazy and the car was borderline useless.

      This implies that you are braking far, far too hard.

      It is better, in very slippery conditions, to use the brakes as little as possible. If your ABS was "fir[ing] in and out like crazy", perhaps you do not have sufficient experience in those conditions. ABS doesn't make grip, it just salvages as much as possible. If you're salvaging all the time, your driving is inappropriate for the conditions.

      > With a car without ABS, I'd have had a much easier time

      No you wouldn't. You'd have slid into something because you were braking far too harshly.


  76. Jim 59


    This story doesn't make sense. Your front wheel "spun wildly out of control" but you "never noticed the wheel spinning". The car "completely stopped responding to input" but you then attempted to cross a railway ? In these circumstances, an appropriate response would be to pull over and phone for assistance, not to endanger life by carrying on.

    And if the facts are as you report them, then tell us what car it is so we can avoid this death trap. And so the manufacter can issue an alert/recall. Did you perhaps exxagerate a bit ?

    1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

      The front wheel certainly could have spun out of control for a brief period while accelerating from a stop at a light. The car didn't provide any feedback to indicate this was happening. I am certain I would not have heard it; the heater was on full, and there were two enormous pimped out rig pig trucks with fart cannons on either side trying to race to the next red light.

      It is a stupidly dangerous, frustrating road filled almost entirely with full-tonne trucks, SUVs and cars on large risers. The civic design is so poor that something like 70’+ people speed dangerously to try to beat the endless series of poorly timed lights, often whipping through reds. There is an LRT going down the middle of the road, and the whole thing is the feeder to the freeway serving a pair of set of huge bedroom communities. Oh, and it was the first 20 minutes of rush hour.

      So no, unless the car provided some form of tactile feedback, or an audible tone in the car, I’d never have known that the wheel had spun.

      As to the “completely stopped responding” bit, that is an interesting one. See, the car was working just fine at 20kph for several blocks (as I *desperately locked for a way to escape the death trap road I was on, which had big cement walls an no turn-out lane.)

      It wasn’t until I complete the left hand turn (incidentally taking me across the tracks) that the thing went dead. But only for an instant…then the speedo freaked out for a second (again) and the car went right back to 20kph.

      There is no exaggeration or hyperbole there. Not even about the terrifying, terrifying road. (I only ever even drive that road anymore because the other links are all under construction.) My issue indeed is emphatically not with the computer itself. I think it did the job it is supposed to do.

      My issue is with the lack of feedback. That computer should have told me that it was overriding my inputs. Loudly. And I take serious issue with and designer or engineer that allowed the creation of such a system without informing the driver that this sort of thing was even possible. (It is not how the system normally behaves.)

      Let’s take ABS as a great example of a well done system. In every car I have ever driven, there is a universal signal (the pedal “pumping”) for informing the driver that the computer was overriding user inputs. This is good. This is proper engineering. It is a universal feedback system and – critically – it informs the driver when it is in use.

      The trac computer in this instance declined to do anything of the sort. Thus my philosophising. Are we – as a society – comfortable with this? Is the burden of knowing when a computer is overriding a human – as opposed to mechanical or other error – on the human? What happened to the principles of good design that did things like provide a feedback mechanism for ABS?

      As to make/model of car, I decline to answer. The last thing the Internet needs is another holy war about car manufacturers.

  77. Big_Boomer

    It's happening NOW!

    All your car are belong to me. Ownzed! <LOL>

  78. Old Painless


    ..I drive a chieftain.It has no ABS, and I'm not that bothered if I slide it into things.I think we should all have one, would certainly solve a lot of speeding issues. although garage forecourts would have to be a bit bigger.

  79. Delbert

    You cant fight technology

    I've had the same issues I drive a MAN truck with Euro IV compliant technology. Once the ecu decides there is a fault it disables the engine and may take several reboots of the system to drive away . However if there is a sensor out of range it simple will not start. That can be as simple as the temperature spike when the engine is shut off after a run not really what you can call progress and yes I have been stranded by it thankfully not on train tracks.

  80. pditty

    You can make all the arguments in the world about how electronic nannies (ABS, traction control, stability control etc) aren't necessary and people should drive better...

    And people *should* drive better, but those nannies save lives. Absolutely 100% no doubt about it.

    They also prevent injuries and crashes that would result in higher costs of health care and insurance. So much so that they're being mandated by law in the US.

    What's stupid is trying to drive a car in limp mode, putting yourself and others selfishly in danger because you're too cheap to get a tow truck.

  81. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    My car had actual problems...

    ...with the speedometer and lambda sensors.

    Without the lambda proper working, the engine "freezes" at 1000rpm allowing you to crawl on 1st gear for help. I've read through the owner's manual and it was properly documented there. OK, sorted. I like to call it "carburetor mode" or "throttle input OFF". Yes, it refuses the gas pedal commands. Weird, but ok, the thing entered fail-safe mode, and is kind enough to keep working and not dying on you.

    On another occasion a *really* steep pothole dented one wheel and knocked the speedometer cable loose, and it finally detached or shorted weeks later (yes it was THAT messed up). But the manual won't tell you that without the speedometer the car WON'T BUDGE. No check lights, no nothing, you just turn the key, the starter shakes the whole thing, but the engine won't breathe.

    What kind of car CPU relies better on the speedometer than on the lambda to keep the thing working? The mind boggles.

    PS. My car has no traction control, no ABS, no automatic transmission, just the good'ol clutch, but I faced nearly all the same problems described in the article. Funny isn't it?

    And yes, low traction sucks. On really sloped streets (like mine) going inside a garage (curb) will usually put the car balancing on 3 wheels. God help you if you don't have a limited slip differential. Expect some skidding.

    I heard that some ABS systems will 'disable' themselves below 10mph, because locking brakes in snow or gravel would 'dig' a trench, and cause a pileup of debris in front of the car, helping the brake effort. Don't ask me how it tells the difference between black ice and snow / gravel .

  82. Anonymous Coward

    System reset

    When my turbo was failing, my car would go into limp mode under load which could be a problem on the motorway. However a quick system reset (turn the key off and on again) would reset the computer and it would be fine again.

    Having since spoken to a number of people, this solution usually fixes most one off problems where a car may go into limp mode. Of course if there is a continuous fault you are stuffed.

  83. Jigr69

    Modern ABS

    Alot of modern ABS systems actually kick in before the wheel stops rotating (i.e. skidding), as opposed to kicking in when the wheel actually stops rotating. Therefore it is improving the overall stopping distance in a similar manner to a very good driver pumping the brakes (prior to ABS being fitted as standard).

    The whole idea of pumping the brakes/ABS is to maximise the braking efficiency of the car whilst retaining moveability. As has been pointed out, sometimes the stopping distance is greater than the distance you need to stop in (car pulling out of a junction), therefore being able to rapidly slow down and avoid said obstacle avoids additional paperwork.

  84. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Come again...

    What is your point? Your computer breaks down in your car leaving you stranded on train tracks is different from a mechanically controlled car breaking down and leaving you stranded on train tracks? Presumably now that it has a computer in it you accept your demise alongside your slightly more intelligent vehicle, sat in the drivers seat, waiting for the situation to right itself, while the train keeps coming... Rather than either abandoning the damn thing or getting out to give it a push? Computers are not replacement for common sense... Well... They shouldn't be.

    1. Trevor_Pott Gold badge

      Actually, when it lit back up, I had already put her in neutral, undone my seatbelt and had my hand on the door. You have to understand that pushing her across the tracks would have been simple. She's a light car, I can do it from the driver's side doorframe.

      More to the point, the tracks are only 15m-ish worth of space. The other side is a slight downward sloping hill. I knew before I made the turn that I could have easily pushed her out of the way before the next train. Conversely, if I had tried to stop anywhere on that southbound road, I'd have been run over.

      There was little (if any) real possibility of getting hit by the train before I could get the car out of there; it had just passed, another wouldn't be along for 8 minutes. But damned if you don't start freaking out when you realise you are stuck on train tracks.

      All those perfectly logical cold calculations pale to the overwhelming power of adrenaline.

      No, my issue here is that the computer should have let me know that it was taking over. It would have made a difference in how I reacted. Frankly, had I known it was the computer, I’d have turned it off, put it in neutral and pushed as soon as it died, rather than leaving it idle. The computer has control of the brakes. A potentially squirrely tranny doesn’t.

      The only thing that mattered, really, was getting across the tracks to safety. Half a block to home free. And 8 minutes to get there.

  85. Stevie


    There's *always* someone on the train tracks, it's just that your distance from the real business at hand prevents you from seeing it.

    I had to point out to some of our younger SAs who were indulging their imagined superiority at the expense of the applications programmers recently.

    "They ought to fire them all" one said.

    "If they did, why on earth would we need *you*" I asked, smiling?

    I then went on to explain that out business wasn't running computers for their own sake, and that far from being the most important people in the place, they were like janitors: The most important people in the universe when the lavatory is blocked and backing up, paid to prevent that ever happening at all other times. In other words, if they ever had to step into the limelight, they had already failed at their most important function - to stay out of the way so others could do the real work of the place.

    SAs. Gotta love 'em.

  86. Bruce Ordway


    A few years back i read an article about a lecture given by the current head of DARPA.

    I don't remember his name but I do remember...

    He questioned whether "A" level programmers shouldn't be the ones working on the code for your vehicles ABS? I believe he suggested it was being done by "C" programmers in that period. I wonder who is doing it now?

  87. Anonymous Coward
    IT Angle

    Traction Control

    I would have thought the author would have noticed the car wasn't working by it not working, or the lights on the dash and not driven 20 blocks to avoid a tow charge.

    On the subject of Traction control I've a few close calls in a RWD BMW, when the surface is slippery and you are turning onto a main road it will cut power because the wheels are slipping on the untreated minor road. So the gap you had of 10 seconds between cars, the gap ou were going for, is now you crawling out of a side turning at 2mph while the TCS cuts the throttle and applies the brakes.

  88. sonic007

    Good information

    Very scary. I myself at times do turn off my traction control but it is easy to forget.

    Might be a Toyota. They have had lots of recalls. I myself would suspect a transmission problem as well. Must have been very slight wheel spin. I know with my Kia it is hard to notice slight wheel spin. I will keep this in mind if I ever have this problem. I myself as well work in I.T.

    Hopefully this doesnt happen to anyone else.

  89. Mr. Chuck

    Too much apparatus

    Modern cars are getting more and more complicated. It's a rearguard action to save a failing technology--private road transport--that is collapsing under the weight of emissions, congestion and fuel prices. You want cars, you'll have to put up with it. A car is not an appliance however much the makers might pretend otherwise.

    Incidentially, I have a Mk2 Jag and while it has other problems, this sort of rubbish isn't among them. I use it infrequently and for pleasure, and with a few simple modifications it's reliable enough. For commuting, I prefer to travel by motorbike (also no computer) as city traffic here has become pretty much unfeasible. In peak hour you're lucky to do 10 km/h in a car.

    Since I work with computers and programmers, I don't want either involved with my personal transport thank you very much.

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