The more cars become "computers on wheels" the more information technology best practices will be needed to keep customers happy. Simply put, the day of automobile patch days may not be that far off.
The takeaways from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearings on the Toyota recalls boil down to one big question: Are more technologically advanced cars such a smart idea?
House Energy and Commerce committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) set the tone at the beginning of Tuesday's hearings. He kicked off the hearings by saying "cars have become moving computers. The increased reliance on new electronics brings new risks and they need to be examined."
And examine they did. Like most Congressional hearings, there was a good bit of showboating. Experts were probed for conflict of interests. Victims of Toyota glitches were brought to the fore. And Toyota execs were generally kicked around.
It was an interesting tug of war.
James Lentz (right), President and CEO of Toyota Motor USA, said in prepared remarks:
We are confident that no problems exist with the electronic throttle control system in our vehicles. We have designed our electronic throttle control system with multiple fail‐safe
mechanisms to shut off or reduce engine power in the event of a system failure. We have done extensive testing of this system and have never found a malfunction that caused unintended
Additionally, in December we asked Exponent, a world‐class engineering and scientific consulting firm, to conduct a comprehensive, independent analysis of our electronic throttle control system with an unlimited budget. Their interim report confirms that it works as designed. Toyota will make the results of this comprehensive evaluation available to the public when it is completed.
Lawmakers and government officials weren't buying Lentz's take.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration hasn't found any electronic problems, but will do a "thorough review" of the use of electronics in automobiles.
The hearings quickly sounded like an IT talk. Sean Kane, founder and president of Safety Research and Strategies, told lawmakers that there are questions that remain to be resolved about the use of electronics. "How do we patch? What are the technological problems?" Kane asked.
David Gilbert, Southern Illinois University automotive technology professor, said that fail-safe technology "falls short of where it needs to be."
The problem: What may be a technologically OK rate of failure rate for an operating system, consumer electronics device or other gadget won't cut it for an automobile.
It'll be up to engineers at Toyota and elsewhere to figure out how exactly you build cars that can be easily rebooted, patched and recoded as needed. If cars are no more than big computers IT best practices will be necessary.