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The Perfect Storm May Rain 1's and 0's

Toyota's uncontrolled acceleration issues probably arise from a perfect storm of factors, including gas pedals that stick down too far, pedal linkages that wear prematurely, customers installing floor mats that are too thick and plenty of cases of plain driver error.

But the storm may have another front: A software bug. And this one could really make some rain.

The idea that a software glitch could be causing at least part of Toyota's nightmare has been kicked around – and utterly dismissed by Toyota – almost from the beginning. But a couple of days ago early Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak told an audience he was convinced a bug was making his Prius decide to run up to 97 MPH on its own at times (quite a feat for a Prius, intentional or not.) And a day later, the U.S. NHTSA confirmed it is looking into the possibility electromagnetic interference is causing a digital glitch in some Toyota electronic throttle controls.

Uh oh.

Now an already scary story has a spooky, virusy, cyber-something flavor added to it. Umm, did we forget to tell car buyers that they don't really control their cars any more – computers do?

Your car is a collection of local area networks and a dozen or two microprocessors that happen to have an engine, wheels and body shell connected to them. And if that makes your car sound a lot like a commercial jetliner, that's not too far off the mark.

One of the big differences is the enormous pains taken to create redundant, self-checking digital systems in commercial jets; you couldn't afford your car if the same pains were taken with it.

None of this digitalization is a bad thing – it's how cars do all the magic we take for granted today. Like start. Every time. And how the radio knows to stay on after the key is turned off until the driver's door is opened. How the door locks know to engage when you reach 3 MPH after driving off. And why climate controls have temperature numbers and not just vague ranges of blue and red on a knob.

Similarly, when you step on the gas pedal you're often just telling a chip to tell the engine what to do. It's usually a stout, reliable process -- the car industry knows theirs isn't a game for little boys in short pants. But the same electronic intermediates that make all that happen can pick up interference or potentially get a couple 1's and 0's in the wrong place on a piece of silicon buried somewhere.

If it does, it can be a lot more serious than a sunroof not closing right. Ask Steve Wozniak next time he's coaxing his Prius down from near 100 MPH.
But software glitches are a subtler, trickier animal than mechanical issues. They aren't visible and are often transient. They don't squeal for 1,000 miles before they snap. And they often don't appear gradually. Ever had your PC work perfect one moment, then go complete berserk the next?

That's frustrating on the desktop, something else on the road.

None of this is unique to Toyota if it even turns out to be the problem – they just happen to be in the storm right now. What's important is that this is a "teachable moment" when consumers learn how digital and proxy-based all cars have become.

If software problems are contributing to Toyota's debacle it was just a matter of time. It would have happened sooner or later to some carmaker or another. But car buyers need to be aware of this new factor in vehicle reliability just like they are (somewhat) savvy about brake wear and tire inflation. 1' and 0's are the big differentiators of tomorrow's cars.