No Fixed Abode: Generic Fixes Of The Future
We were standing trackside and talking about the new Acura NSX. My brother had just driven it to the overall win at the first-ever SCCA Targa event. It would have been nice if the NSX he’d been driving had also been a Targa; I believe they were called the NSX-T back in the day. No such luck. The new NSX does not (yet) come in Targa form. What can you do. We all have to face our own share of disappointment. Each worm to his taste, as the proverb says — some worms prefer to eat nettles.
My brother was off somewhere doing something so I was talking to a couple of occasional TTAC readers. They admitted that they skip my stuff and focus on the good solid tangible sales data from Tim Cain. I did not love them for this. But I discussed the NSX with them nonetheless, and at one point somebody said something along the lines of, “It’s a great car, but how are you going to fix something that complicated 20 years from now, without factory or dealer support?” And that was the sentence that triggered my Matrix moment, a mind spinning down a rabbit hole into a deja-vu past.
Fifteen years ago, I bought a massive collection of old Roundel magazines from a fellow BMWCCA member. Most of them were from the ’70s, which suited me just fine as those were the magazines I wanted to read. A few were from the late ’80s as well, and as I paged through them I remembered reading each of them for the first time when I worked for David Hobbs in 1989.
A common theme of Roundel magazine at the time was — wait for it, I’m going to be real with you here — how complicated and unfixable the modern BMWs were. According to various columnists and letter-writers, the modern BMW was a computerized toy made of brittle plastic that would be sentenced to junkyard duty in five years max. Ten, if you never drove the thing and lived next door to a sympathetic dealer. There were many reasons cited for this terror of the new cars. Electronic fuel injection. Emissions controls. Computerized dashboard computers that were computerized with blinky red computer lights. You get the idea.
The reader will recall that the 1989 BMW lineup consisted of:
- The E32 Siebener;
- The brand-new (and totally terrifying) E34 Funfer;
- The 635Csi and M6 that shared the old E28’s platform;
- The E30, in four-and-six-cylinder variants.
That’s right. The “disposable Bimmer,” the existence of which was bemoaned to the high heavens, was the fucking E30. Go to a club race in 2016, a full 24 years after the last E30 hardtop arrived on these shores, and you’ll see at least a dozen of them. They underpin every series from ChumpCar to AER to NASA Spec E30. To get a sense of how odd this is, imagine that you went to an SCCA race in 1988, the year that Roundel was whining about the E30, and the majority of the cars you saw were from the late ’50s and very early ’60s.
The same alarm was raised when the E36 came out; today, those cars are running ChumpCar with locomotive reliability. The E46 debuted to similar hysterics; you can catch them on the corners of every Cars and Coffee with 175,000 miles on the clock and duct tape holding them together.
You get the idea. The demise of the modern automobile as a durable, repairable proposition is much exaggerated and oft-predicted before its time. I’m reminded of the people who predicted that the world would end in famine by 1970 if we didn’t stop having children. The funny thing is that those people were right, given the data that was available at the time. What could not be predicted; the “Green Revolution” that would allow the Earth to overflow with people who like to eat but aren’t very keen on doing other stuff like participating in democracy or letting women speak in public or inventing airplanes or washing their hands after they go potty. Oh well. It’s a mixed bag, I suppose. Where was I?
Oh yes. I was saying that the predictions of famine were absolutely accurate, given the conditions of the time. So too were the predictions that the cars of the 1980s and beyond would be unfixable by their owners. What the Roundel crew could not predict was that the Internet would massively expand the access that the average old-car owner has to knowledge, specialized parts, diagnosis tools, and an aftermarket that is stronger than ever. Every E30 owner is on the Internet pretty much all the time from what I can tell, swapping troubleshooting information, learning about new and improved parts, and supporting Kickstarters for community-developed solutions to known issues.
Make no mistake. If your only tools to fix a 1986 325e amounted to the factory service manual and the phone number of your local BMW dealer, you’d be proper fucked, as Tommy says in Snatch. But those were the only tools available to people who were fixing their 1968 2002s in 1986, so there was no reason for anybody to expect that the situation would change.
Let’s call it the Red Revolution, in honor of all the people who have removed a transmission drain plug instead of the oil drain plug while following instructions on YouTube. The Red Revolution has made all sorts of very complicated cars fixable. Even I have taken advantage of it countless times to fix my Porsches and my other old cars, even though I’m very far from being a mechanic of any sort. Thanks to the Red Revolution, I don’t have to take my 2004 Boxster S to the dealer for a $150/hour molestation, I don’t have to pay main dealer prices for parts, and I don’t have to guess at how to perform basic maintenance.
But the Red Revolution has its limits. One famous example of it is the Lamborghini Diablo, which is chock-full of specialized parts that simply no longer exist. There are a lot of cars for which the wiring harness is becoming a unicorn item, as well. Sometimes, as with the V12-engined W140 Benzes, it’s because the harness is deliberately biodegradable.
Many of the newest production cars, like the 2017 Acura NSX, rely on a veritable Beowulf cluster of supercomputers, sensors, and electric motors. Right now, it seems unlikely that you’d be able to pull a 2017 NSX out of a junkyard in 2042 and restore it to working condition. Yet there’s a new revolution coming to supersede the Red Revolution and to make exactly such a thing possible.
The harbinger of that revolution is the not-so-humble Megasquirt community-developed standalone fuel management system. It can replace the ECU in nearly every vehicle you can imagine. It makes engine swaps easier and offers a real, workable alternative to people who simply cannot source affordable ECUs for their vehicles. One example of this is the humble Plymouth Neon. Over the years, most of the Neons out there have fried their ECUs. The rare and desirable Mopar ECUs which permit a higher rev ceiling are pretty much all gone. It’s easier just to Megasquirt the car and enjoy control of the fueling system that the OEM computer couldn’t even dream of providing.
Let’s call it the Mirror Revolution, because it’s all about emulation. The Megasquirt works because it is thousands of times more intelligent than the dedicated-chip ECUs that it replaces, so it can be easily programmed to emulate any of them. If you’ve ever run a Nintendo or Atari emulator on your home computer, or played the MAME arcade games, you know the concept. Even the most pedestrian smartphone today can easily run a complete model of a Super Nintendo chipset in software.
The day is coming when computers will be so smart that they will be able to “black box” any existing component in a matter of hours. You plug your rare old ECU or any other computer into the emulator. It will offer every possible combination of input signal to the ECU and check to see what the responses are. Presto! In no time, you’ve got it modeled in software and can run it on any generic processor. All you need to do is fabricate the particular plugs or displays used by that system.
Fabrication, too, is becoming more widespread. Again, I tell you that the day will come that you can have anything from a Diablo wiring harness to a 944 Turbo control arm to the front wheel electric motors of the 2017 NSX fabricated just by having a brief chat with an “expert system.” You’ll be amazed what this makes possible. Brand-new “Offy” racing engines, replacement parts for a 1914 Cadillac, you name it. I’ve written fiction about this, but reality may soon outpace my imagination.
The only problem with all of this is that the parts and solutions offered by the Mirror Revolution will be as superior to their templates as the Megasquirt is to the Mopar ECU. That doesn’t sound like a problem, but wait until the day comes when you line up for a Spec E30 race in the year 2039 and you start to have a sneaking suspicion that the car next to you is entirely fabricated from carbon fiber and titanium, even though it looks exactly like a rusty old ’91 318is. What will we do, when a near-infinite number of available CAD cycles iteratively designs an E30 with the weight of a Lotus Elise, the chassis stiffness of a LaFerrari, and the shock tuning of a Formula One car? How can you compete against that? More importantly, what will the folks at Roundel have left to complain about?
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AFAIK Megasquirt does not handle (at the time): electronic throttle pedals/throttle bodies properly, no CAN functionality (your dash and other things like the TCM rely on engine data _very_ heavily) Not that your point does not stand: we simply don't have that technology yet, somebody is bound to develop it at some point in time.
Jack Jack Jack, you never worked on a '67 VW Type II or IV back in the day, did you? We didn't have a clue what to do with those computer boxes, and we didn't even really know all that they did. Just when all other troubleshooting came to naught, we swapped boxes with a wrecked car (it helps that I worked at a salvage yard too). Then along came L- and K-Jetronic, along with Nizzan's (or was it Datsun?) imitation Bosch injection systems, and those were pretty straightforward. Sigh of relief. And they were easy to troubleshoot because mostly it was the fuel filter or the pressure regulator (located on the engine block, yeah). I have a 30 year old C4 that thank goodness my own experience stops at. I went back into aviation in '86. But at least that car is, mostly, still fixable by me. No electronics in the suspension, just the funky VATS and the ECM, basically. NOW you tell me along comes this Squirt company and makes it all easy again? Dammit, Jack, I was just starting to feel young again!