Editor, AM magazine for the automotive industry
CARS are becoming increasingly complex, with a myriad of electronics and electrics. Take BMW's iDrive, Mercedes-Benz's Comand and Audi's MMI, not to mention Renault and Nissan's keyless entry systems.
But is this rapid explosion in new technology susceptible to teething problems? From personal experience, the answer is a clear yes.
Over the past year, AM magazine has taken delivery of a number of premium cars which have suffered from faulty electrics or, in one memorable case, a complete system shutdown.
And it's not just us: Mercedes-Benz has recalled the E-class and SL due to a 'small number' of faults with the drive-by-wire Sensotronic Brake Control system, which in some cases, it says, meant the car 'provided a level of braking efficiency which was still higher than the applicable legal requirements'. Pardon?
We've had our own problems with the E-class. Last summer, an estate version was sitting outside my house when the alarm went off. Leaping from my sofa, I grabbed the keys and proceeded to spend an embarrassing 10 minutes attempting to disengage the alarm, much to the amusement, then increasing annoyance, of my neighbours.
The alarm eventually shut itself down, but when I attempted to start the car there was nothing – not even a whimper from the ignition. The next thing, the car was being dragged on to a flat-bed and taken off to Milton Keynes.
The recovery guy admitted it wasn't the first call-out of this type he'd had. It would be unfair to highlight Mercedes-Benz alone. We've had problems with three top-end BMW cars.
One claimed transmission failure, making it impossible to select a gear – the problem mysteriously rectified itself overnight.
On another occasion, the iDrive crashed while a colleague was driving down the A1, resulting in the loss of radio and aircon. Again, the problem was solved by pulling over and switching the ignition off and on again.
Then, earlier this year, our 6-series diagnostics system flashed up the warning that there had a been a loss of engine power – 'do not drive', it instructed. Not what you want to see while on the outside lane of the M1.
What tends to happen, according to one BMW engineer, is that fleets – often the first adopters of new technology – end up being unsuspecting guinea pigs. When a fault is reported, the retail network is informed and the next time the affected car comes into the workshop, the iDrive is updated – many cars are running around with software versions 1.2 or 1.3.
Now, Mercedes says it has too much technology in its cars: it has removed 600 electronic functions in new models, claiming not only that no-one needs them, but that they could cause the malfunction of the important electronic parts.
As much of this technology will eventually filter into the mass market, let's hope others reassess their systems before it gets out of hand.