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9 automotive recalls due to electronics blunder

29 Aug 2014  | Alison Dorantes-Garcia

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It appears that 2014 is quickly becoming a precarious year to own a car. CNN's report in July showed every General Motors recall in 2014, totalling more than 20 million affected vehicles. However, GM is not the only big automobile company with major recalls. Among them are Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and Mazda. Problems stemmed from electronics-software programming to hardware issues.

Lessons learned? Although consumers have always had to keep an eye out for poorly designed cars (and companies with bad reputations), having more electronics in the car means consumers have to stay more vigilant.

Electronics afford many benefits: better fuel economy, safer conditions, and so forth. But even a good company sometimes gets bad electronics, and the mix of mechanical systems with electronics is fraught with challenge. Automotive engineers can't always protect us from part failure or unforeseen conditions. Or can they?

What lessons have engineers learned about how to design electronics for the automotive environment? Here's a quick look at some of the notorious recalls involving car electronics.

 Unintended acceleration and electronic control unit

Figure 1: Unintended acceleration and electronic control unit (Image: Barr Group)

In a 2013 court case, embedded systems experts who reviewed Toyota's electronic throttle source code testified that they found the code defective, and that it contains bugs—including bugs that can cause unintended acceleration.

"We've demonstrated how as little as a single bit flip can cause the driver to lose control of the engine speed in real cars due to software malfunction that is not reliably detected by any fail-safe," said Michael Barr, CTO and co-founder of Barr Group.

 Sensors malfunction can hurt braking

Figure 2: Sensors malfunction can hurt braking (Image: WikiCommons)

Toyota is issuing a limited service campaign, rather than a full recall, covering about 177,500 of its hybrid sedans from the 2007 through 2011 model years because of an issue with the cars' brake fluid reservoirs and sensors.

The models have a filter separating two chambers of the brake fluid reservoir, and that part can get clogged over time. If this happens, the fluid level in one of the chambers can get too low and eventually cause the power assist to fail. There are multiple warning lights on the dashboard that illuminate over time if the filter gets obstructed. The company is replacing the entire reservoir with an improved unit, and the fix takes about two hours to perform.

Consumer Reports wrote a case for full recall of the Toyota Camry because of the above problem and others, including "dicey ABS brake actuator" and malfunctioning sensor. According to Consumer Reports:

The second problem involves a dicey ABS brake actuator. If that should fail, warning lights will come on and it could take a hard push on the pedal to stop the car. Meanwhile, the ABS function won't activate. A related problem comes from a possibly faulty "brake pedal stroke sensor." The remedies include a new actuator and replacement or reprogramming of the stroke sensor computer chip.

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