Sir, the problem is your DSL line

I’m used to hearing myriad excuses from car repair shops about why my car isn’t ready. Unfortunately, I’m getting used to a whole new category of excuses that I usually hear from my Internet service provider.

Recent attempts to get a new wireless key for my 2003 Volkswagen Jetta were stymied by spotty Internet service in Redwood City, Calif., which is about 25 miles south of San Francisco. The pleasant but overwhelmed service technician at Boardwalk Volkswagen told me that he could not guarantee the car would be ready the same day I took it in because the Internet service in the area was fading in and out that day.

Now, I’ve had other cars where getting a new key was a simple matter of finding the guy who knew how to operate the key-cutting machine. But wireless keys are different. VW uses a device that combines the key and the wireless unit into one package, and VW assigns a unique identification code to your car and key.

If a new key is needed, the car is plugged into a computer that downloads the codes over the Internet to the vehicle and VW’s wireless keys from VW’s central servers, a process that takes about 20 minutes under normal circumstances. But, if the Internet connection is intermittent, no new key. I needed a new key because the 15-cent metal part that attaches the key to a key ring had broken.

The whole experience foreshadowed a day where a visit to the car dealership will resemble an hour on hold with a customer support rep from a PC company. “Hello, sir, my name is Steve. How can I be helping you today to make your automobile once again operational?”

Any budding backyard mechanic who has lifted the hood on a car built after 1995 or so has seen little resemblance to the carburetors and distributors of yesterday. Even a novice driver could fix an older car with a little bit of common sense and luck.

Try doing that on a modern car, which in many cases can’t even be diagnosed unless it is plugged into a computer. Mechanics need to know more about Internet Protocol networking these days than vapour lock.

Before I come off as some crusty old Luddite, let me acknowledge that cars and drivers have benefited greatly from the computer age.

Tire pressure sensors help drivers detect and avoid blowouts, and computer technology is at the heart of new hybrid engines that are far more fuel-efficient than anything built during Detroit’s glory days.

My father-in-law’s new Infiniti M45 has more processing power than my 3-year-old desktop PC, with a camera that displays the terrain to the rear of a car when it shifts into reverse, a navigation system, DVD player, built-in iPod docking station, and enough LED gauges to read a novel by.

But do we car owners want to have to anxiously await every “patch Tuesday” from Microsoft Corp. or whichever company comes to dominate the automobile software market? Do we want to plug our cars into an Ethernet jack every night to download software updates? Will the “blue screen of death” take on an entirely more horrifying meaning crossing the Bay Bridge at 65 miles per hour as a software crash causes a literal one?

Maybe it won’t be so bad. After all, instead of sitting around in the waiting room of a dealership flipping through 4-year-old copies of Car and Driver, I could have a technician remotely diagnose my car and gouge me for a new ball-joint sensor ring, or some other vital piece of useless machinery.

But, we’d still be at the mercy of my flaky DSL connection. So be sure to rotate your memory modules, change your virus definitions every 3,000 miles, and defragment your transmission on a regular basis.

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