Archive for June, 2016

As a result of a faulty data broadcast, Lexus car owners in the US are suffering from crashing in-car maps and radio systems. The buggy update was delivered via a wireless transmission and is shorting out affected vehicles’ infotainment systems. As a result, drivers’ navigation directions, climate controls and digital radio have been rendered inaccessible. 

lexThe Toyota division quickly acknowledged the problem with the update and stated that owners will have to bring their cars in to repair the problem:

“Errant data broadcast by our traffic and weather data service provider was not handled as expected by the microcomputer in the vehicle navigation head unit (centre display) of 2014-2016 Model Year Lexus vehicles and 2016 Model Year Toyota Land Cruiser,” explained a Toyota spokeswoman. 

“In some situations, this issue can cause the head unit to restart repeatedly, affecting operation of the navigation system (if equipped), audio and climate control features. The data suspected to be the source of the error was corrected last night.”

According to the Toyota division, “many” vehicles have been affected. That said, the problem has only reached US-based drivers with Enform subscriptions. The data-transmitting service is not available in Europe, sparing European drivers the inconvenience. 

lex bigSince the issue initiated, drivers have been posting videos demonstrating the cars’ screens booting up, flashing purple and then crashing immediately. The fault repeats whether the vehicles are parked or driving. Multiple drivers believed that their cars has been “hacked,” perhaps spooked by the prevalent rumors that connected cars are becoming increasingly hackable. 

While the suspicion that internet-connected cars may be able to be hacked and controlled remotely has arguably been over stated and covered by the media, there have been instances in which paid research teams have managed to figure out how to hack particular cars in initiatives with which car companies have cooperated. A famous article published by Wired covered one such case, during which a reporter drove a car that had been hacked and was forced to play victim to a variety of pranks conducted by the hackers, including cutting the car’s brakes on the highway. 

lex2That said, that degree of hacking has only ever been possible when companies and researchers cooperated during experiments that were both intensive and well-funded. Hackers working on their own have yet to master the trade of hacking cars. 

Lexus owners have reported that disconnecting their car battery resets the infotainment unit and can offer drivers a few hours of functionality before the crashing inevitably occurs again.

“The correction is a forced reset and clearing of the errant data from the system,” explained Lexus. “Toyota and Lexus owners experiencing issues should visit their dealer for a complimentary system reset and a confirmation of the system. We regret any inconvenience.”

The issue certainly does create an inconvenience for drivers, threatening to tarnish Lexus’s reputation as the Consumer Reports’ “most reliable” car brand. That said, the upset hasn’t been nearly as brand-damaging as the currently unfolding Mitsubishi scandal.

“Lexus has an excellent reputation for reliability, but these days that’s not just about having trustworthy mechanical parts but its also electronics and software,” explained Professor David Bailey of Aston Business School. “There are typically more lines of code in a car than an aircraft, and you only have to get one part wrong for it to cause these types of problems.”

lithium prices upBattery prices have become one of the major obstacles for EVs in terms of competing in an auto market saturated with lower-cost cars running on internal combustion engines. Electric vehicles are already too expensive for most prospective car buyers to even consider, and bringing that price down is crucial for the movement of eco-friendly vehicles to take flight.

Whether automakers can decrease the production prices of their EVs and make them stay down is largely determined by how the battery is constructed. Most EVs run off of lithium batteries, so how does the volatile price of lithium factor into the potential success of electric vehicles as a whole?

This is a more relevant question than ever, as global lithium prices have more than doubled over the past six months, causing automakers to scramble for new ways to fill their necessary supply of the rare metal. However, according to a study conducted by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University and published in the Journal of Power Sources, these soaring lithium prices likely won’t actually impact electric-car battery costs.

Researchers Rebecca Ciez and Jay Whitacre analyzed many lithium-ion cell chemistries and found that large increases in the global price of lithium won’t actually translate into large lith2increases in the price of battery cells. They explained this in the context of two chosen prismatic cell designs along with two lithium-ion cell chemistries. The researchers then constructed a bill of materials and broke down the costs of the cells, ultimately finding the potential impact of large fluctuations in the price of lithium on the over all cost of producing the batteries.

Ciez and Whitacre found that even a 300 percent increase in the cost of lithium would not lead to an increase in battery cost of the same magnitude. In fact, the maximum increase in cost per kilowatt-hour for the four batteries studied would actually be less than 10 percent, according to the researchers. For the cost of creating the batteries to increase by 15 percent, the cost of lithium would have to increase by 500 percent.

lith3According to the researchers, the cost of lithium could never stay at 500 percent of what it is now, as those kinds of prices would attract other lithium producers, who would ultimately increase supply and lower prices.

As for the lithium supply running out all-together, it’s unlikely that it will run out any time soon. The researchers have stated that lithium is plentiful on our planet, and that the current sources supplying lithium to battery companies aren’t the only sources, simply the cheapest sources.

The researchers said lithium could also be extracted from seawater, for example.

At the end of the day, the researchers found that battery suppliers would need to achieve lower costs for lithium ion cells through other means, as lithium supply is simply not enough of a factor to affect price predictions or lower prices substantially. A sophisticated and elegant system must be found that will allow for the batteries to function better and be produced more easily; there’s simply no other way around it.