Wednesday 21 March 2018

Some 'advances' give little or no mileage

Technological change can sometimes lead to one problem being swapped for another, argues John Keegan

WRONG ROAD? John Keegan questions some 'improvements' in car technology. Photo Tony Gavin
WRONG ROAD? John Keegan questions some 'improvements' in car technology. Photo Tony Gavin

IT seems for every technological advance in motoring there is another problem or inconvenience, and many problems that could have been put to bed that are still awake.

Arguably the biggest problem a car owner can experience is its absence -- there were 13,132 cases of vehicle theft in 2009. This figure is, in fact, down from 2008 but, as we all know, these numbers are likely to go in a direction opposite to that of our economy this year and over the next few years.

On average, 15 per cent of stolen cars are not recovered, and the remaining 85 per cent are rarely found in as good a condition as they were when they were stolen.

Car designs have evolved to cope with this; the first car alarm was created as far back as 1920 by a Nebraskan inventor but, of course, by now anti-theft devices have come a long way with immobilisers and motion sensors, some even going as far as locking the wheel jack to stop tyre thieves.

This is all very reassuring, unless of course someone just steals your keys. A problem made even worse by the button on the modern car key today that, when pressed, flashes the lights and unlocks all doors, turns off the alarm, and makes that "I'm open" sound which I'm sure sounds like the best of clubland to the ears of the delinquent searching for your car in the car park.

You can get a tracker installed so you can actually go on the internet and track your car speeding away up the mountains until it seems parked, and the signal's gone. And if you're lucky and it's clear, you may even be able to look out your window and see the blaze that your car has become.

This was a more prevalent problem before joyriding was usurped by the appeal of settling down to be a boy racer but, as I've said, recession does come with a boom in theft.

It may be found very surprising then that, as far back as 1996, the inexpensive Citroen Saxo came with a four-digit pin immobiliser as standard. That said, many of these came with their own electrical faults as standard too and it was often deemed "ridiculous" by drivers, but there are far more hits on Google searching for these faults (952,000) than stolen Saxos (66,100).

Some people may find this form of immobiliser (even while functioning) an inconvenience, but as cars are usually the most expensive item a person owns after their house, a clone of a house alarm seems fitting, and certainly less inconvenient than a steering lock. Car theft would certainly not be eradicated if all designers had latched onto this means of anti-theft device and tried to iron out its problems, rather than investing in a tracker which enables communication with the person who has stolen your car. But it is a good idea for solving the problem, a problem affecting people financially every year in a time when money is not to be squandered.

Arguably, the next-biggest inconvenience a motorist can undergo is to have the accelerator stuck to the floor: a sensation more commonly experienced by someone on a rollercoaster, but a select few who drove Toyotas this year and last got the pleasure without the having to get the ferry over to Oaklands.

It would astound me if the 26,000 recalls in February have been forgotten. Many people may have heard the explanation as to why this happened on a mechanical level, but the underlying reason behind it is rarely questioned. It is the push to try and get as many of the mechanical elements, with which the driver interacts, to be electronic.

The task of getting an accelerator pedal to work by a positional sensor was not the problem; it was trying to get one such pedal to have a similar feel to that of a mechanical one. The Toyota engineers somewhat ill advisedly decided to use a taper in the design of the pedal. (Tapers are a very effective way to hold the position of an object and are often used in dentistry.) However, due to a friction problem, this became stuck in position in 30 or so cases across Europe before the recall. Those which were recalled had the taper taken out, resorting back to the initial problem of having little or no resistance when compared with the conventional pedal.

Toyota's problem was not the electronics they had integrated, but the mechanics to make it feel as if they had not.

But is this not a noble endeavour? Electronic controls result in the car weighing less and taking up less space -- which should ultimately result in the saving of energy and materials. Any driver appreciates the ability to control all of the car windows with a switch inches to the right of the wheel, and any parent knows the blessing of being able to lock them when three children are in the back.

The probability of a fault occurring with a machine is a function of the number of parts it has. This statement alone may not immediately strike you as daunting, but if an electrical fault that causes your windows not to work annoys you, what if it also stops your accelerator?

Out of all the advances that are deemed necessary for competition in the car market and the money that goes into them, how many of them do you appreciate, or even use? How many work properly and stay working? How many do you even know about? Would it not be more satisfying to just be able to buy last year's model, without the defects?

John Keegan is studying mechanical engineering at DIT Bolton Street and has a special interest in music and cars

Sunday Independent

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