VMs — Virtual Machines

virtual-car

I got my pickup truck back from the dealer Tuesday afternoon.

It had gone in for the correction of two recalls involving control harness shorts and an air curtain control unit that had been firing off the air curtain system at random and hence, distressing, times.

Oh yeah, and an oil change.

As I covered the work on the work order with the dealer’s Service Writer, she slipped the following in at the end where maybe the hope was people wouldn’t notice it.

“Oh, yeah, we checked your ECU software, and it was way out of date, so we updated it.”

So.

They flashed my pickup.

Now I’ve run a gazillion updates on my computer.

I’ve updated wireless routers, smart phones and tablets.

And although I’ve had one such update done by replacing a memory card inside an older Engine Control Unit, this the first time I can remember somebody flashing my pickup truck.

And the truth was, not only was I not concerned about that description, but I greeted it with a sense of enthusiasm and barely contained anticipatory glee.

‘Cause frankly, my pickup truck had been kind of a disappointment.

It had exhibited all sorts of poorly implemented digital controls problems starting with god-awful throttle response to anything short of full throttle — it hated tentative or trailing throttle — surged on reopening — crappy shift points — lagging response to any inputs on the driver displays — it went on and on. What the service techs lump under ‘drivability’ — the whole human interface, was a thrown together, laggy, lumpy mess.

The transmission also had a 1-2 shift under light throttle than could only charitably be described as ‘crunchy’. If you had shifted the manual gearbox in your Dad’s car and it sounded like this, he’d have taken the keys away.

The impression you may rightly take from this is that in the matter of my pickup truck, there was a LOT of room for improvement.

Now it shall be stated for the record that I am a nerd.

I know, that when you install an update, there are no guarantees that it will be better than what had been there before.

There are even the statistical corner case updates that will render a device hopelessly inoperable, as in “Ah crap, ya bricked it.”

But in the case of this pickup truck, there were so many areas where there was room for improvement, it was hard to greet an update with anything thing other than hope.

So I went to the parking lot, plugged in my key, and flipped the starter.

“Wa-ROOOOM…”

Not Bricked.

Check.

I buckled my belt, and dropped it in gear.

I applied mild throttle — the truck has a small block overhead cam V8 — and I got pressed back in my seat and could hear the rear tires getting profoundly stressed against the pavement.

This was not how the truck I had dropped off behaved.

I ended up taking a scenic route — twisty technical roads culled from my motorcycling rides — home. The route was designed to answer the question if this update had done anything significant.

It way had.

The truck now had almost analog throttle response — 2 degrees of extra pedal travel were producing detectable change in motor response. 2 degrees more than that got more still. No off-then-on-herky-jerky stuff. Shifts of the automatic transmission were crisp and in the right place. Downshifts were easy to produce when wanted with the throttle.

Even the box of spare gears soundtrack seemed to be gone.

Now in my mind, anyway, I reach for any understanding I can come by.

Its possible that my truck had a corrupted ECU software load, but two things seem far more likely.

The first is that the truck had to be shipped before its software was ready.

The more insidious is that this is another form of VW-like mucking with the inspection system.

What if the software the vehicle is shipped with is engineered specifically to pass the EPA noise and emissions testing, but Government regulators have no structure or requirement to inspect subsequent updates to the tested software.

What you have then is one USB port loaded Get Out Of Jail Free card.

An engine that has to have its map unnaturally lean with retarded spark –reduced output — to pass noise tests can then have that map replaced with whatever is required to make the engine run its best. Pre-update, my V8 was weak off the bottom, with on-off throttle. Post update strong low end torque with near ideal linear throttle response.

Night. Day.

The entire behavior of the final complex system was almost entirely a product of software.

 

***

 

If you live in the United States, and you watch — even occasionally — the infernal televising machine, you’ve been saturated with this —

“There’s no one road out there. No one surface. No one speed. No one way of driving on each and every road. But there is one car than can conquer them all…”

And the nice folks at Mercedes Benz would like it very much if you would buy “that one car”.

Except that its a lie.

Because that one car is five cars.

Or maybe twenty five cars.

All of which are a result of choices made in software.

The commercial shows the console mounted diving mode selector button: Eco, Comfort, Sport, Sport+, Individual.

The Benz’ driving mode selector moves between defined ‘personalities’ that make changes to the suspension’s spring rates and valving, the engine’s throttle response, aggressiveness of the transmission’s shift points, and the degree of assist and ratios for the power steering.

The range of adjustment allows performance that varies between riding like a Lincoln Town Car and the characteristics of a Nissan GT-R, with a few intermediate stops in between. If the predefined options are not sufficient, you can brew up a custom gumbo of your own preferences — soft ride, slow steering and full power for your next entry into the Gumball Rally — and save them as “Individual”.

But the entire behavior of the final complex system is almost entirely a product of software.

 

***

 

When this kind of behavior crosses into the Motorcycle realm, then my interest goes from the theoretical to the practical.

And it seems that, at least with the motorcycle manufacturers that are working in partnership with Bosch, that barrier has not just been crossed, but obliterated.

Motorcycles like the KTM Superduke GT and SuperAdventure, and BMW’s new S1000XR now have all of the functionality of the aforementioned C Class Mercedes, and, frankly, more.

Much more.

The KTMs have active suspension which adjust springing and damping within user selected ranges — brake hard over a bumpy service and the suspension will adjust itself for anti-dive and to track the irregularities as the sensors perceive them. Lift the front wheel and compression damping will drop to ensure a controlled landing from the wheelie.

All of that pales in comparison to the safety systems that are unique to two wheeled machinery.

Traction controls and Anti-lock brakes now consult inertial management units (IMUs) to make different forms of correction to motorcycles that are accelerating, decelerating or leaning.  The aforementioned wheelie — one of the core joys of proficient motorcycling — can be completely dialed out by the IMU and traction control systems. ABS that would still make enough braking force to wash a front wheel while cornering is a thing of the past.

One Moto-magazine article was filled with nearly uncontrolled and uncontrollable mirth after a team of testers set out, on the Bosch test range, to prove that they were able crash the system-equipped bikes.

The best they were able to do was to come to a complete stop while leaned over in a corner — otherwise impossible, I might note — and then falling over, which had them all giggling like schoolgirls.

Motorcycle electronics have taken the next quantum leap.

Formerly, if you wanted a race bike, you needed stiff suspension, lumpy camshafts and large tuned intakes and exhausts. Tourers needed small intakes and soft suspension. People cycling off pavement needed suspension and power designed to control the machine while the drive wheel was spinning.

All of these things required divergent designs – designs that resulted in vastly different structures in metal.

Now any and all of those things are available at the touch of a button.

In a recent Cycle World review of the SuperAdventure, Blake Connor described the adjustability of the machine this way – “..the Super Adventure can be anything you want it to be. Mile-eating tourer? No problem. Roost-chucking adventurer? Yup. Wheelie-crazed hooligan? Yeah, that too. ”

Motorcycle enthusiasts like me had garages full of different motorcycles for their different moods.

Now the entire behavior of a motorcycle is almost entirely a product of software.

I’ve gone through a difficult period of adjustment where I had philosophical objections about human beings losing the skill to operate motorcycles unassisted by technology.

But the game has moved on.

We’re no longer talking about simple rider assistance.

The entire character and physics of the machine has moved from metal to software code.

What once was the most demonstrably physical of man’s inventions is now a virtual machine.