Rocket Science

October 25, 2011

The automobiles and trucks being produced today are some of the most technically advanced machines ever built. They are by far the most complex machine any of us will own, yet they are commonly taken for granted. And if they break down before reaching 100k miles, we are disappointed.

I remember a time not long ago when I heard a politician in Washington make the comment, “Repairing automobiles is not rocket science.” But when you look at today’s cars, that assessment could not be further from the truth. The current generation of cars and trucks are extremely complex machines that must balance performance, the environment, and safety, all while cradling the driver in comforts many don’t experience even in their own home. Technology makes this all possible and there seems to be no end in sight to the addition of more and more electronic systems to keep up with the demand from both the government and consumers for the “latest and greatest.”

It is my belief that diagnosing and repairing our current fleet of vehicles is indeed rocket science. Let’s compare the main guidance computer used on the Apollo 11 spacecraft (the one that made the first Moon landing) and the main engine control computer used in the 2011 Buick Regal, perhaps the most powerful engine control computer (ECM) ever produced.

Processor speed
Apollo spacecraft: 1.024 MHz
Buick Regal: 128 MHz
Result: The Buick ECM is 125 times faster

RAM (Memory)
Apollo spacecraft: 2KB
Buick Regal: 3MB
Result: The Buick ECM has 1500 times more memory

On-board computers
Apollo spacecraft: 2
Buick Regal: 12
Result: The Buick has 6 times the on-board computers controlling its various systems

While the Apollo spacecraft had large computers on the ground supporting the operation, the on-board computers pale in comparison to what we find in our current vehicles. With the advent of subscription-based communications, security, navigation, and remote diagnostics systems such and GM’s OnStar, we now have a network of ground computers supporting our vehicles just like the Apollo spacecraft did.

So the next time you jump in your car and it starts right up, and then you switch on the AC or heater, set the seat temperature controls, adjust your mirrors, and tune the radio to your favorite station, remember that the on-board computers do it all for you—all you have to do is press a button.

Sure sounds like rocket science to me!

About the Author

Jim Taddei has been in the automotive field since 1975 and has over 25 years of experience with General Motors products, achieving the designation of GM Master Technician. He is also currently certified as an ASE Master Technician, and holds an Advanced California Smog Check License. He has been the lead technician and team leader at a multi-line dealership. After leaving the dealership he spent a couple of years working in an independent shop and now uses his experience and expertise to help verify the quality of RepairPal Certified shops.

1 User Comment

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By , December 06, 2011
Basicly they flew to space whit a calculator.