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Past Issue
11 December 2000

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 1, No. 48

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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If My Car Ran Like a Personal Computer

If my car ran like a personal computer, the dashboard would sometimes rearrange itself, I'd get error messages about the car's "illegal" operations, and I'd often have to pull over to shut off the engine and restart the car.

by Jerome F. Winzig

Sometimes, when I've been frustrated with my PC, I've wondered how my car would behave if it ran like a personal computer. It would have a really neat feature (borrowed from Internet Explorer) that allowed me to rearrange all the instruments on the dashboard for my own convenience. However, there would be one drawback. If I accidentally touched certain buttons on the radio at the same time, the dashboard would suddenly rearrange itself in an arbitrary fashion.

This could happen while driving down the freeway, leaving me grabbing for the steering wheel, which had suddenly moved to the center of the dashboard. The speedometer and tachometer would move to the far right, in front of the passenger seat. All the vents would be clustered in the center, and the radio and the heating and air conditioning controls would be at the far left. I'd have to pull over to the shoulder in heavy traffic and try to figure out which hidden controls would put the dashboard back the way it was.

My car would have another neat feature that displayed error messages on a little dashboard screen. The feature would work like this. If the GM-built heating system failed, a message would display saying, "Your heater has performed an illegal operation; if the problem persists, please contact General Motors." Fortunately, the error wouldn't really be "illegal" and I wouldn't get a ticket. Furthermore, the problem would self-correct if I shut off the engine and restarted it. That would be a good thing, because I could only call General Motors if I had purchased the car directly from General Motors; owners who purchased their cars from a dealer wouldn't be allowed to call GM.

Sometimes I would not be able to turn off certain components, like the radio, which would continue playing even after I'd pushed the on/off button. Usually, when this occurred, I'd try turning off other components, thinking the car's computer or electrical system was overloaded. But if I tried turning off the heater and the rear-window defroster, they wouldn't turn off either. Finally, the steering column would start to lock up and I'd pull to the side of the road and try restarting the engine, using a new special "automatic shutdown" button. However, nothing would happen, so I'd have to turn the ignition key to turn off the engine.

When I started the engine, I'd get a message on the dashboard screen telling me the onboard computer had to perform a lengthy series of diagnostics on the whole car because I hadn't turned off the car correctly. The message would go on to tell me I could avoid this problem by always using the "automatic shutdown" button to turn off the engine.

At other times, I'd be driving down the freeway and the car would start to slow down. I'd try pressing the accelerator and nothing would happen. With the car slowing to 40 mph in heavy traffic, I'd press the "help" button on the dashboard. I'd see a message on the dashboard screen, telling me that the car was operating at only 55 percent of full power. I'd turn off the cruise control, the heater, the radio, and the rear window defroster and press "help" again. Now the dashboard screen would indicate the car was operating at 58 percent capacity, still not enough. I could only fix the problem by pulling off to the side of the road, shutting off the engine, and restarting the car.

On occasion, the car would display a message on the dashboard screen, telling me that the gasoline in my tank had been contaminated with water and should be replaced immediately. However, if I turned off the car and restarted it, the message would not recur. If I were to take the car to a service station and have them test the gasoline, they'd discover there was nothing wrong with the gas.

Sometimes, the controls on the radio would slow down. That is, when I pressed the button for a particular channel, nothing would happen. If I pushed other buttons, still nothing would happen. Finally, after about 20 seconds, the radio would change to the channel I had originally selected. Sometimes the problem would go away after I turned the radio off and turned it back on. On other occasions, the problem would persist until I restarted the car.

Such a car would be a bit of a nuisance. Why then is it okay when personal computers act like this?

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     Minneapolis, Minnesota

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