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To Combat Car-Electronics Problems, Toyota Should Go Open Source

As the Toyota recall continues to evolve many sources are looking beyond defective floor mats and sticky gas pedals to deeper and more troubling issues with the software that controls modern automobiles.

The frightening reality is this: "For mechanics, 40% of the vehicle amounts to a black box. They aren't trained to be systems analysts. They must rely on other computers -- another black box -- to diagnose a wide range of complex issues that crop up with vehicle electronics," writes Rob Mitchell over at Computer World. Until Toyota opens this code up to mechanics and consumers, they'll be unable to detect and diagnose problems as they arise.

Once upon a time you could lift the hood of a car and see with your eyes exactly what made the automobile run. These days cars relay on oodles of computer code to do everything from defrost to cruise control. The most significant change in the last decade is that in many cars acceleration is now controlled by electronic sensors, as opposed to old fashioned steel cables. This "drive by wire" system put computers at the heart of car's most dangerous function. "It would be easy to say the modern car is a computer on wheels, but it's more like 30 computers on wheels," said Bruce Emaus, the chairman of SAE International's embedded software standards committee. The problem with incorporating software into the core functions of an automobile is that, no matter how much time and energy a company puts into testing its software -- and you can be sure Toyota did just that -- it will almost always fall short. "It's practically a law of nature that when code gets huge, bugs multiply," says writer Clive Thompson. "The software becomes such a sprawling ecosystem that no single person can ever visualize how it works and what might go wrong."

Since front end testing is futile, the best solution is to make auto software open source. Thousands of eyeballs scouring code would mean problems get identified quicker. Yes, any fix would have to go through several layers of government regulation before it could actually be applied. But if mechanics and even curious consumers could investigate these bugs as they popped up, fewer of the errors would become systemic risks like they have with Toyota.

There is an old joke in which Bill Gates compared the computer industry with the auto industry. "If GM had kept up the technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving twenty-five dollar cars that got 1,000 miles per gallon."

General Motors supplies the punchline. "Yes, but would you want your car to crash twice a day?"