Modularity and Standards

Eons ago, (well, it seems like eons) when IBM designed its original PC, it took note of the success of the Apple II with it’s modular expansion system — easily accessible card slots with loads of clear documentation — and added its own variety of modular expansion system. By doing so, the cost of accessories to consumers stayed low, the cost of installing or replacing said accessories stayed low and a whole new industry emerged to create compatible accessories.

I just read a Twitter Tweet (“Tweet” sounds too cutesy to me, so I’m never quite sure what to call those; maybe a “Twoot”?) from Mike Buetow that linked to an article about the latest Toyota recall. It seems that there are a couple of specific solder joints prone to cracking in the ECM (Engine Control Module) of certain models.

The last time I had any real data on the cost to replace an ECM, it was on the order of $1,500. Just scanning around the Internet, I found numbers ranging from $1,000 to $2,000. I’m guessing (I am speaking from near complete ignorance) that maybe two or three hours of that are labor at $90/ hour. That’s a lot of cost in the electronics as well as labor hours that can’t be used for billable hours. With so much of new cars being electronic, this issue is only going to become more extreme.

So, why can’t the auto industry take a cue from the PC industry? Create a standard, easily accessible, electrical bus with standard, easy to manipulate mechanical attributes. Even if they were just standard within each manufacturer, it would still be a big improvement.

Consider this scenario: Buy a Toyota mid-size-car ECM at the local auto parts store. Take it home, plug it into a USB port on your home computer. It auto-runs a link to a specific web site. Enter your car’s VIN number and the site loads firmware that matches the ECM to your car. Take the ECM outside, open your hood, flip a few latches on the water-tight electronics box, pull the old one out and plug the new one in. There you go. Done.

Instead of what is pretty much a massively expensive dealer-only operation, you have half a dozen standard bus ECMs to choose from and about 15 minutes of work that’s not much more difficult than installing a new printer on your PC. And, you’d have less expensive aftermarket options as well. And, a new industry would emerge to design and build those aftermarket options.

Duane Benson
Sadly, not in my lifetime, Batman…

3 thoughts on “Modularity and Standards

  1. There is a sort of standard for CAN communications J1939, but at a firm that did interfaces to ECU’s we found every manufacturer had a slightly different take on the standard. So instead of garages being able to have a universal diagnostics set up, they have to purchase a mdocule for each make they want to repair!
    Great news for dealerships and main garages, not so good for us.

  2. Remember too, what happened after the open architecture AppleII. Apple saw all those after-market sales and wanted that action too. Along came the closed architecture Mac. I’m sure part of the reason for “dealer only” repairs is that they force you back into the arms of the dealer’s sales staff whose goal is to get you out of that old xxxx and into the newest model.

  3. Bill – and, I guess it would be worth noting that IBM doesn’t make PC’s anymore. Okay, so what’s good for the general public may not be so good for the manufacturer. I’d still like to see modularity and easy field replaceable components in cars though.

Comments are closed.