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Grease Monkeys Become Tech Junkies

Computerized Cars Require More Than Wrenches to Repair

By Greg Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 26, 2005; Page A01

Taylor Chamberlin works at a specialty garage in Gaithersburg and recently coaxed so much power out of his own Ford truck that it couldn't run on a rainy street for spinning its wheels. But he's not a mechanic and he seldom gets his hands dirty.

"I'm a computer nerd," Chamberlin said.

Dan Chi, 17, drives a computer-aided hot rod. His dad, Sam, a former mechanic, doesn't "know about all that stuff." (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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Guys who would have been banging under the hood with oily wrenches a generation ago are now more likely to work their magic with lines of software and a serial cable. The goal is the same -- to wring as much speed as possible out of an automobile -- but the computerization of cars has permanently changed what it means to work on your car.

Components that were once purely mechanical -- brakes, steering, suspension -- are now either electronic or controlled by computers. It's still possible to spend a Sunday afternoon tinkering on your Lexus in the driveway, if by tinkering you mean changing the oil. Otherwise, most home mechanics are restricted to cosmetic changes, such as installing a new sound system or putting light-up dragon heads on the wiper fluid nozzles. Almost anything that makes a car perform better is going to involve electronics.

"It has come a long way since the days of using a handful of wrenches and a screwdriver. It's amazing to see what these computer chips can do," said Peter MacGillivray of the Specialty Equipment Market Association, a trade group for companies that make auto accessories.

Car culture, in a sense, has become less democratic, harder for the average person to participate in with just some tools and spare time.

"I think it's going to hurt the hobby eventually," said Jon Bill, archivist for the Auburn Cord Duesenberg Museum in Auburn, Ind., and author of several books on vintage cars. Bill can handle anything on his '53 Ford, but when his late-model Jaguar wouldn't start one morning, he popped the hood and realized he had no idea what to do with the various cables and computer boxes staring back at him.

"I was, 'Gah, I'm helpless!' There was nothing to do other than call a dealer," he said.

Laptops are standard around Atlantic Motorsports, where Chamberlin works when he's not studying at George Mason University. Today's automobiles are packed with about a thousand times as much computing power as was in the Apollo moon landers, according to the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. Computer chips run more than 86 percent of the systems in an average vehicle, according to the alliance. Modifying them can ruin a car as quickly as juice it up, but if you know how, you can reprogram controls such as timing and air/fuel ratio to milk more power out of an engine.

The technology may annoy purists, but it hits the sweet spot for a generation of teenagers who learned about cars from video games such as Grand Turismo or Need for Speed. Marry the lust for hotter computer graphics to the classic urge for faster wheels and the result is a new type of hot rod culture.

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