Total System Failure

As anyone who knows me will know I love my cars, well actually probably not my own cars but more the mythical cars that I don’t have to fill with kerosene or keep the windscreen wipers topped up and I’m just useless when it comes to walking the big end every Sunday (Fnarr!). In short I’ve loved them ever since I can remember, I suppose being surrounded by these luxurious marques from day one hasn’t really helped. My last foray with ‘that car’ however left me with a bitter taste for a certain brand of Bavarian automobile and so when faced with renewing my car this year (the deciding of which takes place over a geological time scale) it was in reality a two horse race between the much beloved Mercedes of Stuttgart (by me at least) and my less favoured but probably more practical Swedish workhorse Volvo. In the end I felt that I got more for my money from the Volvo marque and so then it just came down to models. The decision making process was long and laborious and then suddenly I found myself in the middle of  a car lot in Birmingham at midday on a Sunday with 20 minutes to spare. 60 minutes later I was like an insurgent running from the scene of an explosion; revolution in the air I’d left my bomb of a BMW ticking away silently on the other side of the road as a part ex. Yes, I knew the runflat warning would go off within 3 days when the pressure was fine, yes I knew that the one day that the runflat warning didn’t go off would be the one day that you had four punctures. I knew that at best you had 30 minutes before the radio would get too hot and spasmodically cut out interfering with the Bluetooth for the phone as it did so, I also knew that interfering with the Bluetooth was not an issue as the phone integration was so awful as to be unusable anyway. I long ago gave up using it as people would assume I was Davros halfway across of time and space, stuck in an empty pineapple can calling to warning the human race that just as soon as I fight my way out I’m coming to kick ass; In a metaphorical sense of course… Davros having no legs . Yes I knew that ride comfort was in fact merely two unconnected words that somebody at BMW had heard when they accidentally walked into a Mercedes showroom, I also knew the damn thing wallowed so much my girlfriend had to take an apple on every journey just to avoid throwing up… good job we have a chocolate Labrador which are of course renowned for being able to find apples in the desert, bygones…  After 2 years of the worst ownership experience I of course knew that it was horrendous on fuel, even when driven frugally and even when compared to an E class estate which could probably carry all of the spare parts the BMW would require in a year;  yes I knew that the i- drive would crash every week normally coerced into doing so by the radios aforementioned behaviour. I was also aware that it was in need of four new tyres and a service and it had been at least 6 months since the air suspension had gone… again…..again.

In short my sedition was leading me very quickly to a better place, a world where the shrapnel from my ‘blow for the brotherhood’  would not find me. Happy with my new acquisition I headed home and once back in the land of constant precipitation I monitored the website of the company who had purchased the BMW in question waiting to see if they could make a swan from a pack of swan vestas…. One week later the curse appeared, it looked good enough to sell but I could see a grimace on the face of the car… as if puffing its chest and holding its stomach in as a pretty girl walked past. I continued to monitor and the price tumbled before I was informed by the guy I bought it off that it went to auction which is always bad news for someone!

Anyway I appear to have digressed somewhat as I was actually attempting to relate a story of total system failure that happened this weekend as I drove from Cornwall to Devon. This was to be clear in the Volvo and not the ‘dirty bomb’ which was busy somewhere up in midlands earning someone an overdraft. Back to the story. It was Sunday, it was sunny and I left Cornwall knowing that there was something badly wrong. I had been in  traffic that morning and heard a strange noise from under the bonnet, a little smoke I thought and possibly a funny smell (that wasn’t me this time)…. The symptoms then stopped so I imagined, though didn’t quite believe, that I must have been mistaken. 2 miles down the road I pulled up for diesel and it was then that my day started.

A red triangle appeared with the text “Power System, Service Urgent” and the battery warning light lit.

I did what anyone would do, filled up with petrol thinking “am I being optimistic with this 10l /20l / 30l/ 40l and before I knew it I had a full £60 of potentially useless diesel behind me. But the car started and more hopefully there was no warning anymore. Buoyed on by this we headed to the supermarket where upon arrival the warning reappeared. Now I’m a patterns kind of guy, it’s my job really to look for them and the first thing I saw here was that ‘maybe it just doesnt like arrivals’ I mean, some people say the journey is the thing. Bygones.. I elected for best of three, went to do a spot of shopping and then returned to the car hoping my new smoothie maker would have some zen power over Volvo charging systems… sadly a few minutes later I discovered it did not and it was then that I made the first sensible decision of the day which was to return home while it was light. I was fairly certain that the rather sparse message was in fact telling me that my alternator was brokedy-fucked and the last thing I wanted was to have a reliance on lights for the journey which consisted of a 40 mile trip, nearly 50% of that on dual carriageway. In retrospect, ignorance was bliss. So I left a sunny Cornwall in lonely silence… no music and the window half cranked down both of these to avoid using power from battery… I felt like that guy off of Apollo 13, Tom Hanks I think his name was!!! My senses were heightened and I was concentrating heavily on any signs from the car that it was struggling. None such appeared… until they did of course. I managed to clear the dual carriageway and hit the town of Launceston which is when gravity started to apply her brakes to my, at this point, untethered optimism. First the power steering gave in…. which is lucky because I’ve always wanted to have arms like a gorilla. Manouevring through the town was tricky especially at mini roundabouts, I mused that back in the day most cars did not have any Power Assisted Steering and that mini roundabouts are merely a product of our blasé approach to steering nowadays; it was at this point that the power assisted brakes chimed in that they too were a bit tired and were going for a little lie down. I was far from a winning line in dashboard bingo (full tank of fuel remember!) but things were starting to light up nicely and as I basked in the glow of dashboard lights warning me of an unfolding disaster it hit me for the first time on that journey…. doubt. Two miles passed and I had safely negotiated the town with steering that felt like two bricks tied to a broom handle. I had analysed the road ahead and decided on a route that would keep me clear of any more towns, it was now a clear run of about 15 miles to my house with only three junctions… two of them i could crawl over and final one I would have no choice but to stop at. I needn’t have worried about the future so much though, it was the present that currently had knives for me. The first sharp instruments heading my way were warnings about the traction control and stability program which at the current time were not high on my list of worries and neither was the warning stating my electronic brake was not functional. What was more concerning was the fact that the storm clouds were gathering, very literally. Praying to a deity I have no belief in I asked for a break in the clouds Before running straight into a downpour, just a little one, nothing to write home about. You just switch your windscreen wipers on and….

Shizz. No windscreen wipers, I hadn’t bargained on that but luckily the wind started to shift the film of water on my screen; after a second or two the windscreen was sufficiently clear for me to see the torrential downpour I was heading into. My prayers it seem did not go unanswered, ‘him up there’ just failed to make the terms of the ‘break’ clear as within seconds I could see very little through the spattering thick film of greasy hammering rain; I did the automatic thing of flicking the wipers back on only to remember that I’d already forgotten I had none. To add insult to injury I was also getting soaked because as you may recall I left with the window down; not down far enough that I could look out of the window to improve my driving visibility but plenty enough to get a good soaking all down my right side. I thought about pulling over  but there was always the doubt that I would stall the car or such so I quickly talked myself out of this option instead opting for driving more slowly, I knew this would keep me in the rain for longer but I hoped that I would have some visibility. I looked down to check my speed because one does that when driving blind through a frickin rain storm and was surprised to see my speed reading precisely 0mph. The speedometer was the latest victim of my current woes but seemingly the rev counter was working perfectly, except…. suddenly…. it wasn’t too. The dashboard lights seemed a little dimmer as did my prospects for getting home. The dog, meanwhile,  was blissfully unaware of circumstances, I could hear snoring from the boot (its an estate, I’m not that cruel) and given that I had kidnapped no one I surmised it was her; Little did she realise how much of a walk she would get out of all this. It was at that point that I noticed the central computer die, now as I’ve said earlier this was no hardship as I’ve owned a BMW and this was just normal service; The lights on the dash were getting dimmer and dimmer and dimmer (although I could still see the range with my current tank of diesel was up around 950 miles which was nice to know).

In short, I was struggling. I then came to the brow of a hill and approached the first of my three junctions. It was at this point where I questioned whether any of my external lights were working, indicators being a legal requirement in this country I thrust my arm out of the window and approached ‘The Junction’.  This was not as easy as it seems, power steering gone two arms were required for turning, no indicators however meant that I needed some indication to the car behind and then…. Just as I thought I could apply the accelerator to cross the junction a car came from the opposite direction and forced me to make a split second choice… I could try and negotiate uphill through the afternoon traffic of a town with 2 single width passing places (this was never going to work) or I could slow a little more and attempt to take the junction after the approaching car had past, hoping above hope that the engine did not reach idle point and stall…..

The RAC took 90 minutes to arrive and I am now the owner of a brand new alternator, which is nice…..

But what of it I hear you say, what relevance to a tech blog? What actually took my interest apart from the comedy value was how the degradation in systems which at first appears to be random was in fact carefully stage managed and orchestrated by the engine management software. The power levels in the battery had a very direct impact on what electrical systems would be made available to me at any given point during the ongoing system collapse allowing me to make as much of the journey as possible in relative safety (and total naivety). What I witnessed was actually a masterclass in service architecture showing us that complex systems can be written in such ways that individual service failures should lead to a gradual degradation of availability rather than just a total system failure.  What the dog witnessed was a 100% increase in walks taken that day, in fact I think she may be blogging it as we speak…