Auto Electronics Could Get Buggier Still
Did you know your car grows whiskers? The revelation comes via computer industry pundit Robert X. Cringely (nee Mark Stephens) on his PBS.org blog. Here's the deal… Tin is the primary ingredient in electrical solder that's used in automotive circuit boards and electrical terminals. Tin can grow thin crystal threads that can reach several millimeters in length. Unshaven, these tin whiskers can create short circuits that blow delicate electronics. (NASA banned the use of 100 percent tin in its components after tin whiskers disable three communications satellites.) So electronic component makers switched to solder made of a tin – lead alloy. In 2006, environmental concerns led the EU (so to speak) to ban lead in electronics. Cringely says this well-intentioned regulation means that today's electronics are THOUSANDS of times more likely to create tin whiskers than before. If you’re tired of buggy electronics in your car now, just you wait.
Carzzi is right - the move to no-lead processes in electronic assembly was implemented after a suite of no-lead processes had been developed and carefully tested. What really triggered this move is the cell phone and other mass consumer electronics that last no more than three years. These items wind up in dumps by the millions where they can cause ongoing problems, not just because lead, but other metals as well. To address this, the EU created a regulation that requires most manufacturers of electronic equipment to provide a recycling/disposal service for any product they sell. Naturally, this means shipping the electronics to a third world country with no environmental, health and safety regulations. I would be more worried about real bugs, ie software issues that will certainly creep into new vehicles with the move to add more software control of the vehicle and the addition of cheap consumer electronics into the option list.
Carzzi and crackers: Excellent posts! I work in the medical electronics industry, and our devices are also on the "exemption" list. But, as pointed out, private industry has rapidly changed over to "RoHS-compliant" (the EU's "lead free" requirement) components, mainly because it was economically infeasible to offer both lead-based and non-lead based components during the transition period -- the companies would require two different manufacturing processes. The companies that offered RoHS-compliant components first across their product lines became the default choice for engineers that didn't want to deal with exemptions in their products (as these would garner the dreaded "trash can with the "X" label), so market forces (in this case) worked beautifully. But, these components do cost more, so the increase in materials costs due to these regulations will accelerate the move to outsource electronic assembly to lower-rung economies sooner in a product's lifecycle to stay competitive; so there is a "down-side" for the small-volume domestic electronics industries that manufacture prototypes and "first-run" production.
This is just nonsense. The art of working with lead-free solders has been worked out and been used for quite a long time in a number of areas. There are mitigation strategies for whiskers, but you can also work with different materials, including Tin-Zinc, tin-Copper, Tin-Bismuth, Tin-Silver, Tin-Indium, Tin-silver-copper or even Nickel-Palladium. Getting lead out of automobiles is a very, very good thing and should have been done a long time ago. Why there is such enthusiasm for a toxic substance that is proven to cause real damage to children is beyond me, apart from the fact that it's cheap. You can google all the fun facts about lead, but the reality is: It's not good and let's stop using it. There are plenty of quality replacements for it.
To echo some of the folks above, I work in the spacecraft industry - where tin-whiskers are a moderately big issue - and I don't think that cars present much of a risk for whisker growth. The environmental differences between spaceflight and cars (vibration, temp cycles, vacuum or not, etc.) are sufficient in my mind to basically preclude the whisker growth for electronics in your car (even with essentially 100% tin). I'd be far more worried about the increasing complexity of car electronics and micro-code (leading to the inability to properly test everything in a timely fashion) than I would tin whiskers. As noted previously, there are other metals you can add to the solder to make it less prone to whisker growth, although they are more expensive and sometimes harder to work with. -S5