Complex car electronics pose new problems

Nowadays, electronic control units are able to detect mechanical problems early before you grind to a halt.


Whether you drive an older car or a current model with the latest technology, statistics prove that your car battery must still be in a healthy state if you want to look forward to trouble-free motoring this winter.

The number of breakdowns caused by electronic malfunction has increased by over 20 per cent in the last 20 years. Evaluation of 1.9 million assistance calls by a

large member-based motoring organization in 2004 showed that electronic-derived breakdowns now account for 36 per cent of all emergency call-out responses.

Over the same period breakdowns due to other causes have decreased. In 1985, the causes were much easier to diagnose — the starter motor packed up or the carburetor failed. Nowadays, electronic control units are able to detect mechanical problems early before you grind to a halt.

However, with electronics now controlling so many automotive systems and components, it is much more difficult for the average driver to locate the reason if the car does break down at the roadside. Matters will only get more complex in the future. In 2004, electronics accounted for 25 per cent of all the parts in a car. By 2010, according to one major battery manufacturer supplying a large percentage of all new cars sold, this figure is expected to rise to 35 per cent.

Although there can be no doubt that today’s cars are much more reliable than their predecessors, the control units that contain diagnostic tools can be temperamental and function incorrectly if, for example, the power supply is inconsistent, such as when charging the battery.

Whatever the cause of the problem, it always impacts adversely on the battery. Statistics show that the number of battery failures since 1996 has double from eight to 16 per cent.

Even the strongest battery can fail if a electronic control forgets it should ‘sleep’ — in other words not consume energy — during extended periods of idling or inactivity.

The consequences can be equally detrimental if something as simple as touching the door handle activates other functions in the car, such as comfort and driver aids. The electronics are activated and the battery, sooner or later, is drained of the energy it needs to start the engine and power all of the ancillary equipment.

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