The scourge of modern cars – electronic control units!

By Dhruv Behl | on July 13, 2021

My daily driver is a 2014 BMW 328i that’s done a mere 20,000 kilometres. It’s got everything that I love about BMWs – 50:50 weight distribution, rear-wheel drive and (after some suspension fettling) handling to rival most low-slung two-door coupes. But it’s also littered with the Achilles heel of modern BMW’s – electronic control units.

The other day, the car came to a grinding halt for no apparent reason. I approached the problem – as you do – with a hammer! In all seriousness, I really do keep a rubberised hammer handy in case a fuel pump were to misbehave with no warning – to momentarily knock it back to its senses and hopefully jolt it back to life for long enough to reach a service centre. Unfortunately, on this occasion, all that the hammering resulted in was wasted energy. The car didn’t budge – well, not until it was coerced onto a flatbed.

Apparently, the main ECU was on the blink and it’s not quite as easy as hitting Ctrl-Alt-Delete. And this isn’t the first time that a control unit has failed on a BMW of this vintage – and, in our conditions, it probably won’t be the last. On our roads – which double up as floodplains at least once a year and are permanent dust bowls for the remaining period – these control units are far more prone to failure than in the sterile conditions of the West.

Even if you set aside the brutal battering that these machines are subjected to on our roads, the fact is that electronics are just more prone to failure than their more primitive (but reliable) mechanical ancestors. Think about how many times you need to restart your phone or laptop just to get it to reorient its electronic brain and operate as intended once again.

2021 Mercedes Benz S Class Front Static

I recently had the chance to sample the brand-new Mercedes-Benz S-Class – the best car in the world. And that’s a lot more than just a tag line, it really is a technological tour de force and a miraculous machine in every sense of the word. The trouble is that I had to pull over to operate the massive tablet-like touchscreen, only to realise that this beautiful screen was about as functional as a brick – since it was frozen. At least, in this case, the Ctrl-Alt-Delete worked, and we were soon back in business.

2021 Mercedes Benz S Class Centre Screen

Not only do touchscreens force you to take your eyes off the road, but they’re also fingerprint magnets and (typically) clumsy to use. But new cars don’t sell without them, because buyers are convinced that they’re the epitome of modernity and technology, and they simply won’t open their wallets for a new car without a touchscreen rivalling a big-screen TV. And, of course, the more electronics you add, the more control units that come along for the ride. Some modern cars have almost 100 such control units hidden away, waiting to fail at the least opportune moment.

As the saying goes, you reap what you sow… a century of automotive progress has meant that the mechanical bits on vehicles are virtually foolproof these days. But this is just as we’re moving to digital, connected, autonomous pods that no longer have any real use for the driver. No wonder that the prices of collectible old cars are going through the roof all over the world at present. Not only are they far more involving to drive, but you can also fix them with a hammer. 

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