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Toyota’s fix on Lexus SUV foreshadows electronic future

By Claes Bell, CFA · Bankrate.com
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
Posted: 12 pm ET

Toyota recently corrected the electronic stability control problem in its Lexus GX 460 SUV that drew a "Do Not Buy" rating from Consumer Reports. The defect had previously made the SUV vulnerable to roll over in Consumer Reports tests.

What's interesting about this fix is that it shows off one of the strengths of the rise of "drive by wire" cars, where critical systems are controlled by cars' internal computers. Just as Apple can issue a "firmware" upgrade to fix the software controlling an iPod or iPhone, Toyota and other manufacturers can issue a software upgrade that solves the issue with no new nuts, bolts or gears needed.

Lexus GX 460 SUV

Lexus GX 460 SUV

How can a software upgrade fix a car? Well, one way to look at it is that machines are always driven according to instructions using input from the driver. These instructions can be embedded in the little valves and springs that tell a carburetor exactly how to combine fuel and air in a vintage Mustang's engine when the driver hits the gas.

In modern vehicles like the Lexus, these instructions on how to respond to driver input are embedded on a computer chip that can be reprogrammed in minutes. The advantage of the latter is that in the event that a car's instructions are faulty in some way, instead of having to make a mechanical fix, which requires you to build new physical parts, open up the engine and screw, bolt, or weld them in, faulty instructions in a computer-controlled car can be changed by simply plugging the car into a computer at a dealership and doing what amounts to a software upgrade.

In the near future, once cars will be connected wirelessly to the Web via the Internet (which is already starting to happen), car companies will be able to do a software upgrade on faulty vehicles instantly without you having to go to the dealership at all, similar to how your Windows or Apple PCs automatically install updates to fix bugs and security vulnerabilities. No word yet what will happen if your car gets a virus, though.

What do you think of this "brave new world"? Do you trust mechanical controls or "drive-by-wire" technology more?

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