Brake Override to Become Standard?

On the heels of Toyota's apparent problems with unintended acceleration, today, General Motors announced that it would make brake override systems standard on all of its passenger vehicles by the end of 2012. It's another move that indicates that such systems are likely to become the de facto standard in automobiles long before any government mandate.

GM calls its system "enhanced smart pedal" technology. It means that on cars with automatic transmissions and electronic throttle controls if the driver pushes down on the accelerator and the brake at the same time, the car's computer will assume the driver is attempting to stop and disconnect the throttle. It's an extremely important safeguard because it also means that should the car for any reason–stuck accelerator pedal, conflicting computer commands, jammed floor mat–detect that both pedals are depressed, it will bring the car to a safe stop (during which time the throttle is usually reduced to idle speed).

BMW and several other car makers use such brake override systems. And they are smart enough to know the difference between trying to take off brake-stand-style and cases in which you want to stop the car.

In a brief press release on the announcement, GM went to pains to basically say, but there's nothing wrong with our cars now…we just think this will make them safer.

While brake override is important, it should be noted that it will not prevent some accelerator related accidents, such as pedal misapplication or misidentification. This occurs when a driver thinks they are pressing down on the brake but are actually pressing down on the accelerator. It can be an all-too tragic occurrence particularly with older drivers, and even advanced auto braking systems, such as that about to be introduced in the Volvo S60, cannot prevent such mistakes.

Still, brake override–like backup rear view cameras and electronic stability control systems–are a step in the right direction.

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Is the iPad for You?

JQ on CBS on the iPad

Apple's iPad is now on sale and while it may not revolutionize computing or replace the laptop computer, it does offer a different way to read magazines, watch videos, and surf the Web.

Warning: The first version is only for gadget addicts with unlimited amounts of disposable income. Yes, the second (better) version is already planned for release later this month. It will add the capability of getting online using AT&T's $30-a-month, cellular data service. The version that went on sale this week is Wi-Fi only.

If you're an avid reader, Amazon's Kindle or Barnes & Noble's Nook will make you much happier. They are easier on the eyes for hours of reading, cost less than half of what the cheapest model of the iPad costs (Apple's prices start at $500), and include free wireless access for buying and downloading books (the books are also less expensive). Those who like to sit on the couch and squeeze in a little work during commercial breaks also may not be happy with the iPad. There's no keyboard and the on-screen virtual keyboard is awkward. Twitter fans and e-mail addicts will be frustrated. Moreover, you can buy a laptop for the same amount of money as an iPad but with a lot more features, including a camera, DVD drive, USB ports for connecting other devices, and, of course, a keyboard.

So who will love the iPad? I think gamers, especially casual gamers will be enthralled. The games cost less than those for consoles like the Sony PlayStation 3, are easier to play, and look stunning on the iPad. Also, people who hate their iPhones will be happier with the iPad. Why? Because it will run all those applicatons that folks love on the iPhone, but it doesn't have the terrible cell phone (because, it doesn't have a phone at all–although you can use Skype on it).

For more on the iPad, watch John Quain on CBS News, above.

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Turning Out the Lights: Earth Hour

What happens when the lights go out?

Okay, aside from that.

You save electricity (saving money), cut down on oil, gas, and coal consumption, and reduce overall carbon emissions. That's the triple pitch behind the Earth Hour (started by the World Wildlife Fund three years ago), during which everyone is encouraged to turn out their lights for one hour. Earth Hour this year is scheduled for tomorrow, Saturday, March 27th, at 8:30 local time.

I've covered this in the past and it's gimmicky, but successful. It does actually do what it proposes to do. And in this information overburdened, Tweeted-out, over-texted world we could all use an hour to contemplate something on a more metaphysical level–or just snooze. Take your pick.

Scheduled to take part in the dark are more than 3,100 cities in 121 countries on seven continents. According to the WWF, that tops last year's participation by 87 countries (and look at it this way, if the economy continues to rupture, even more will participate next year!).

In the U.S. more than 50 national monuments and landmarks will go dark, according to organizers, including the Las Vegas Strip, Mt. Rushmore, Niagara Falls, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, and all 39 Broadway Theater Marquees in New York City. Across the world the lights will also go off at Big Ben, the Great Pyramids, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Sydney Opera House, and the Eiffel Tower (it's more romantic that way, anyhow).

(As a side note, if you're thinking about reducing electricity consumption after you turn the lights back on, check out a recent story on the state of LED tech.)

Remember, the time to throw the switch is 8:30 pm local time (wherever you are). And no cheating by using the LCD on your cell phone as a light.

 

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Google TV: Too Little, Too Late?

Granted, it's all rumor and innuendo, but there is some truth to stories about a Google TV set top box for living rooms. Unfortunately, it's all too, little too late…with one possible exception.

The idea is that Google would use its deep pockets, open software (Android), and increasingly dexterous teams of developers to do what no one has managed to do in nearly 30 years: make people want to surf the Web on TV. (Wait, you say, the World Wide Web hasn't been around that long. True, but a little something called videotext was tried before. You could surf for celebrity gossip, order pizza, check your horoscope…sound familiar?)

First, it's true that Google is working with Intel on getting what's currently on your computer onto your TV screen. Everybody is working with Intel on that. Intel will be rolling out WiDi this fall in a big way, for example, and it's already on Core-based laptops sitting in stores now: they just aren't advertising it yet. WiDi is a wireless way of sending what's on your computer to your TV. And, yes, Google's working with Intel on that (as are many others). Why? Because you need a 10-foot UI (user interface) to make the Web work on a TV, and so far no one has delivered a 10-foot UI (except Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Netflix; Vudu's a distant 3rd).

But as to producing a Google TV set top box, that ship has sailed. First, Sony already has a set top box capable of doing everything that the rumored Google TV box might do. It's called the PlayStation 3. Would Sony like some tighter integration with Google on the PS3? You bet, and you can also count on some expanded capabilities later this year with the Sony Dash (Google can help there, too).

The set top box ship has sailed? What about Boxee? What about Roku? What about Tivo?

What about them?

Consumer electronics companies–the big Kahunas of the global tech marketplace–are putting Netflix, Vudu, Pandora, Twitter–you name it–directly on TVs and Blu-ray players and anything else they can think of (see this story in The New York Times). They are not waiting for Google. Samsung is writing its own apps for its own app store; Panasonic has been running its own server farms for years. Most of them are unhappy with how things have gone with Yahoo! (too slow and not enough apps rolling out the door). And they definitely are not fond of Intel (too expensive). And they don't think Jerry Seinfeld is very funny, either.

So the consumer electronics companies look poised to do an end run around not only the cable companies but also around all the computer and Web companies. Forget about Flash and Silverlight. The consumer electronics companies are passing those by, too (except for supporting Flash to handle graphics). From the consumer electronics companies point of view, they are finally going to free themselves from the shackles of the cable companies. So they are not likely to give any ground to a new master. To wit, the slow, agonizing death of Apple TV.

So what might happen? Google could possibly make some headway into the living room if the company could come up with an acceptable revenue model to help Hulu and its ilk. And the broadcasters behind Hulu are looking for something–anything! The content creators need to be paid, and they can't keep simply blocking the PS3 and Boxee. What that model might be and what Google could offer on the advertising side remains to be seen. (A good solution could even bring The Daily Show back to Hulu.)

And there's the little matter of the DVR. Standalone boxes aren't necessary, and it's certainly not necessary to keep paying cable companies for storage. So now that electronic program guides are available directly on TVs, how long until someone puts DVR functions directly on the TV, too (note some of Vizio's features in this regard).

So, maybe videotext wasn't such a great idea. And maybe all people will really want to do on TV is watch TV and make the occasional Skype call. But there's still a lot of money–and marketing leaks–betting on the idea that you and I want to surf the Web on TV.

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3D TV Week in New York

If you were wondering why all of a sudden there have been so many stories about 3D TV in the news, it's because companies backing the technology have descended on New York this week to promote it and pitch it to journalists. (See my story in PC World.)

While many of us have watched lengthy demonstrations of 3D for over a year now, few of us have tested it our own living rooms. That may soon change with Samsung, Onkyo, Panasonic, Xpand and others pushing products. One Best Buy store in New York is now selling Panasonic sets. But 3D programming is, well, scant.

Consumers may also balk at the upfront cost of 3D: It means a new television, new Blu-ray player, and expensive goggles to get the full effect.

Eventually, 3D may become commonplace as people replace their Blu-ray players and upgrade their televisions. But for now, it remains mainly a New York show.

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Toyota Responds to Accelerator Test

Today, Toyota responded to the specific tests conducted by Professor David Gilbert that cast some doubt on the electrical and computer integrity of some of the company's throttle-by-wire systems.

Essentially, Prof. Gilbert tried to show that an electrical short circuit could cause sudden unintended acceleration. Toyota had consistently maintained that such a short circuit was not a real-world possibility. That rebuttal initially seemed weak (never say never), but today the company buttressed its argument by trying to replicate Prof. Gilbert's test and then explaining in detail what they believe occurred and why it could never happen in real driving conditions.

The most important passage in Toyota's statement:

"First, the protective insulation on two separate wires that carry the accelerator pedal position signals to the Engine Control Module must be individually cut or breached. Next, these wires are connected to each other through a 200 Ohm resistor.

This contrivance, by itself, did not cause an increase in engine speed. To cause an increase in engine speed, it is necessary to cut the insulation on a third wire, the 5-volt power supply to the accelerator pedal, and force a low resistance connection between the power supply and the secondary signal wire.

The resulting increase in engine speed is a result of the subsequent artificial and sudden application of the 5-volt power supply to this signal line with the rewired circuit. When subjected to similar unrealistic reengineering and rewiring, the competitive vehicles evaluated by Exponent and Toyota achieved substantially similar results with varying levels of resistances."

The bottom line: Toyota is characterizing this as being equivalent to sending the car's computer modules a false signal that exactly matches a supposedly valid signal (or voltage). While there have been accusations of conflict of interest on both sides, the most disturbing part of the issue seems to be the insertion of the 200-ohm resistor–if that is precisely what Prof. Glibert did.

There are still complaints from Toyota owners who have claimed the company's fixes haven't worked. And there will doubtless be some response from Prof. Gilbert….and considerable legal wrangling to come.

For a more detailed look at the complexity of the problem, see "Complaints About Toyota Fixes."

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Complaints About Toyota Fixes

Does anyone know for certain what exactly is wrong with all of Toyota's accelerator systems? No. But at least one fact is now clear: Electronic throttle-by-wire systems are not infallible, and the very nature of the technology may explain why accident investigators and Toyota engineers missed the problem for so long.

A couple of important points must be acknowledged:

First, throttle-by-wire systems, for all the complaints, are probably much safer, statistically speaking, than the old mechanical pedal-to-cable systems I grew up with. They have several redundant systems and are often used in conjunction with electronic stability control systems (ESC). ESC is so effective at saving lives that no one should buy a car without it.

Second, nobody wants to say it in public given some of the tragedies but doubtless driver error contributed to or caused some (not all) of the accidents involving Toyota vehicles. In fact, pedal misidentification (standing on the gas instead of the brake) is a very common cause of accidents and some of the so-called acceleration problems attributed to Toyota were no doubt caused in this way; we may never know how many. Just as certain, some of the sudden acceleration accidents have been caused by accelerator pedals jammed under floor mats and some by pedals that physically stuck.

But that's not the whole story.

Up until about 15 years ago, the computer controls and systems on most vehicles were relatively simple. Not to diminish the complex work done on emissions and fuel and braking systems at that time, but most essential systems in cars were still at root mechanical. If power steering or active assist failed, you could still steer the car. If electronic stability controls failed, you could still brake and turn the car.

Also at that time, throttles hadn't changed much since the first combustion engine. You step on a pedal, the pedal pulls a cable, the cable is attached to the throttle and opens it. Take your foot off the accelerator, and the cable goes slack and throttle closes (well, technically, almost closes). (This is easy to see working on a gas-powered lawn mower.)

However, cables rust and get stuck. Springs under accelerators give out. And other mechanical parts fail. So using fewer moving parts seems like a good idea, particularly if you can add more sophisticated control for fuel efficiency, more power, or coordinating the throttle with cruise controls and electronic stability controls. Hence, the idea of replacing the old throttle by cable with electronic throttle controls or throttle-by-wire controls.

The first widespread drive-by-wire system to actually completely replace the mechanical components in favor of a computer controlled electrical wire based system is the so-called throttle-by-wire system that is the focus of the Toyota acceleration problems. It is also a system used by BMW, Chrysler, Land Rover, and many others

In its most rudimentary form, a throttle-by-wire system uses two independent position sensors in the accelerator pedal that are connected by separate electrical wires to a motor at the throttle. At the throttle, there are also two more independent position sensors, plus a computer module and the main computer control module. The reason there are at least two sensors at each of these points is to create a failsafe system. The information transmitted from the sensors is compared to each other and to the other sensors to make sure they are all in agreement. If anything is amiss or the readings don't match each other (at the pedal or at the throttle position), the system shuts down, either putting the car into idle or a "limp home" mode. That's how it's supposed to work.

But the number of ways in which such a system could fail is quite daunting. Engineers and computer programmers have tried to account for every eventuality–voltage changes, sensor failures, temperature changes, electrical power failure, dirty throttle bodies, IAC failures, dirty IACs, etc.–but compared to old mechanical throttle systems, these are still very new systems. So engineers are still learning, which is why the Toyota executives would not say unequivocally that there is absolutely no possibility of a computer-related problem in its cars. Who could possibly give such a guarantee, ever? (As an example, there were throttle position sensors that prematurely wore out in early throttle-by-wire systems and subsequently manufacturers switched to a different type of sensor. Lesson learned.)

Nevertheless, from a software point of view, one should be able to account for nearly all potential problems simply by instructing the computer that if anything seems wrong–any position seems out of tolerance, there's conflicting information from the sensors, or there's no information from the sensors–to simply shut down the throttle to idle (say, until the driver turns off and then turns on the car or it is taken to a dealer and analyzed through the ODB-II port).

However, Professor David Gilbert has shown that there nevertheless is at least one loophole in the fail safe system in some Toyota vehicles, and worse, it actually is a two-fold problem. First, Gilbert showed that if there is a short circuit between to the two electronic pedal position circuits, the computer system can mis-read that as full throttle down and it causing sudden unintentional acceleration. The second problem is that unlike with other malfunctions, this problem does not generate an error code on the electronic control module.

This is in one way not so surprising. Crossing the two wires and shorting them out together is a purposeful way to defeat such a system. (Of course, the computer control module should detect the voltage change and shut down.) Furthermore, since the program doesn't see a problem, it's also not surprising that the system doesn't generate an error code.

So now its clear why forensic engineers wouldn't uncover a problem with a vehicle that crashed and burned. Assuming the ECM could be recovered and read, there would be no recorded error code. No code, no problem. And the black boxes or event recorders that government officials referred to in hearings aren't standard yet, so there's no appeal to another source of information for engineers–yet.

So, the answer: Yes, electronic throttle controls can be foiled. Whether or not one feels the Gilbert test cases are "realistic" is beside the point: You shouldn't be able to fool such systems at all. Moreover, such failures do not necessarily generate an evidence trail (i.e., an error code) so we now understand how they could go undetected. No error code, no problem.

Of course, the question still remains whether anything like this occurred in cases of sudden acceleration on Toyota's throttle-by-wire systems. We may never know for certain. But now we do know that more safeguards are needed. Specifically:

– NHTSA must deploy industry standards for drive-by-wire systems. Making brake override mandatory on throttle-by-wire designs would, for example, solve some of these sudden acceleration problems. (They now say they are considering it.) If a car suddenly accelerated–and even if the driver was standing on the accelerator–the car would stop if the driver also simultaneously stamped on the brake. Such brake overrides are common in the industry but not mandated by law. (NB: Brake overrides do not solve the problem of pedal misidentification in which the driver believes he's stomping the brake when he's actually pressing down the accelerator.)

– More independent testing: With many other even more sophisticated computer controlled systems on the market, and likely to become standard on more mainstream cars in the future, we're going to need more independent testing and regulation. At the moment, NHTSA doesn't test such systems in advance unless they run against some current regulation. (For example, you cannot replace side rear view mirrors with video cameras because such mirrors are part of the regulations. However, you can introduce a computer controlled crash prevention system, since that is not specifically regulated.)

– Added Standards: If you introduce a new system on a car, every single aspect of it should be monitored and produce industry standard error codes. We're sort of getting to this point, but the process has been slow. It's also quite a challenge for regulators. However, if this isn't done we'll face more problems down the road.

One GM executive pointed out to me that conventional car have about 25 systems that need to be coordinated. Hybrid vehicles have about 250 such systems. (Witness the slight hiccup in the 2010 Prius that resulted in braking problems.)

It's not as simple as blaming Toyota or blaming NHTSA. One has to be careful how standards are adopted (and that they don't generate new safety issues). And as someone who makes his living learning about and testing new technologies, I don't want to see manufacturers slow down their research or the introduction of systems that can make our lives better, cars safer, and improve energy efficiency. The technological trend looks to be toward more drive-by-wire systems–steering, transmission, brakes, etc. That means a new type of testing, new standards, and, yes, more regulation.

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