April 03, 2006

Pimpin' my Prius with SP1

Prius There’s an old chain email that asks, “what if Microsoft made cars?” It grew out of an apparently fictional press release issued by GM in response to a taunt from Bill Gates, who had unfavorably compared advances in the automotive industry with advances in the computer industry. This “GM response” says in part that if Microsoft made cars,

  • You would press the 'start' button to shut off the engine.
  • Oil, water temperature and alternator warning lights would be replaced by a single 'general car default' warning light.
  • Occasionally, executing a maneuver such as a left-turn would cause your car to shut down and refuse to restart, and you would have to reinstall the engine.

Now before I continue, I have to stress that we love our new Toyota Prius, and in general it works well, accelerates better than expected, gets gas mileage of 40-45 miles per gallon, is surprisingly roomy, includes a very cool smart-key system, etc. So I ask you, though I know it’s futile, to keep in mind as you read the following that even with the problems we have had we would buy one again.

Being a cutting edge vehicle, the Prius relies on a lot of software to make it work properly. Software controls the “power” button that you use to turn on or off the engine, the multi-purpose display monitor that displays car information and warning messages, and the hybrid engine itself. And like all software, the Prius system has “bugs”— defects which the programmers inadvertently introduced during development.

This became abundantly clear recently when my wife was executing a left-hand turn and the multifunction screen suddenly showed a giant red triangle with an exclamation point in the middle. The owner’s manual says that when this occurs, you are to stop driving the vehicle, pull it over, and have the vehicle towed to a dealer. However, you don’t need to read the manual to know something is seriously amiss, because the vehicle goes into “safe mode” at the same time.

Safe mode means that many of the fancy systems are shut off, and the vehicle drives much less responsively and gets poor fuel economy, but it is relatively immune from software problems. Some readers may be reminded at this point of the safe mode in Microsoft Windows, in which the operating system runs with minimal functionality in order to help diagnose problems.

So we had the vehicle towed to a dealer. The next day, they called to tell us that they had turned off the giant red warning light and deactivated safe mode (activated “unsafe mode?”), and that we could continue to drive the vehicle. However, the problem, which apparently relates to the conversion of power between AC and DC, was not fixed.

Rather, the dealer downloaded all of the diagnostic information from our car, and sent this information to Toyota engineers working in an undisclosed location. These engineers were to fix the software bug, call our dealership, and then call us so that we could bring in the car and they could apply the patch. All at no charge, of course.

After waiting a couple weeks in vain for the call, I telephoned the dealership. The technician told me that Toyota has decided to include this fix in a general software update (“SP1?”), which will be ready at some undisclosed date in the future. We are to keep driving our vehicle, which admittedly has had no problems in the meantime, while waiting for the new software release.

All of which inspired me with an excellent idea that I plan to share with Toyota at the next available opportunity. Why not include wireless connectivity in the next version of the Prius operating system? In that case, they could apply fixes like this one “over the air.” Mind you, to prevent security breaches, they would then need to add a self-updating anti-virus program, a firewall, and probably an anti-spyware tool. And of course all of the networking software—and perhaps a way to update that software as new standards emerge.

Or they could just install Windows Vista—at some undisclosed date in the future.

By Will Friedman in Humor/Satire | Permalink  | 


Will, great writing! Very funny stuff.

Posted by: Alan Susser | Apr 4, 2006 5:51:38 AM

This is scary.
But I love you guys for it!!

Posted by: dks | Apr 4, 2006 7:19:36 PM

Me too, I love you more for this ;-0

Posted by: La Femme | Apr 6, 2006 7:38:44 PM

Ok the software is one thing but the paint color! Yuk! I mean if Toyota tried to come up with the ugliest or at least dullest colors..
This year they brightened the red and the blue and the green is a bit lighter. Also the software has a makeover. The phone entry is easier. The dreaded "you understand that using this screen is at your own risk and really should go back to texting messages to your friends while driving" screen is gone! Darker colors make night use a bit easier. I wish I could upload this into my older Prius.
Love your blog!

Posted by: StratDoc | Sep 3, 2008 6:41:51 PM

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