Recently, the German automotive club ADAC released its annual breakdown statistic, as probably motoring clubs all over the world do. Every year when I read this I am asking myself if electronics engineers in the automotive industry really do a good job. The reason for my disbelief is that the electric and electronic components and functional blocks persistently are the main contributor for the breakdowns. In four out of ten cases a distressed driver gets stranded somewhere at the highway the malfunction was caused by something electric; if the ignition system (which undoubtedly has something to do with electricity but is counted separately by the ADAC) is included in the calculation, even every second breakdown was caused by electric failure of some kind.
In contrast, malfunctions associated to mechanical components such as transmission or motor contributed to only 12 percent to the problems with declining tendency. Yes, I know, a clean distinction between electronic and mechanical pieces is less and less possible since electronic parts tend to be used in even the most mechanical units such as "mechanical" transmissions but for the purpose of this discussion let's assume transmissions and motors are something mechanical.
Didn't the vendors of electronic controls in general and ICs in particular tell us all the time that one of the major advantages of electronics is its superior reliability?
Actually, the total error frequency has been reduced in 2008, the ADAC experts say. But, engineers, don't rejoice too early: The reason for the decline has been attributed to lower average mileage as a consequence of higher fuel prices, not to better electrics and electronics.
Yes, cars today have much more electronics on board than they had ten years ago, which unavoidably raises the probability for a failure. Nevertheless, it is always the same parts that decorate the top rankings of the breakdown statistics: Starter, generator, and, always topping the list: The battery. No excuses, folks, there is something wrong with quality management for these parts. All of them have been used in cars for decades. They represent mature technologies. No-one can say they didn't have enough time to iron out their teething troubles.
Every time I read this breakdown statistics, I ask myself if engineering resources in the automotive industry are really allocated to the right places. Perhaps engineers should put on their thinking caps and focus on these failure-prone parts. I promise: The inventor of the failure-free battery certainly will be among the hot candidates for the EE Times technology Oscar.