IT Hiccups of the Week: Red Bull Racing Gets Apology from McLaren Over ECU Software Issues

Last week produced another potpourri of IT-related snags, snarls and snafus. We start off this week with a software issue that impacted Formula One's kick-off race in Australia.

McLaren Apologizes for Software Issue in its ECU

McLaren Electronics Systems, which supplies all the Electronic Control Units (ECU) for Formula 1 racing teams (as well as for NASCAR and IndyCar) apologized last week to the Infinite-Red Bull Racing team for a software problem that affected driver Mark Webber’s car at the start of the Australian Grand Prix on 17 March, AutoWeek reported.  The ECU, which McLaren says [in an entertaining Sky Sports video] is the “brains of the car,” controls the engine, clutch, gearbox, differential, fuel system and the drag reduction system, and provides critical performance telemetry to the racing crew.

This year, McLaren introduced an upgraded ECU in anticipation of the turbo V6 engine to be used starting in the 2014 season; that engine, racing officials hope, will draw fans back to Formula One racing.  However, in February’s preseason winter testing in Barcelona, several racing teams were bedeviled by software “glitches” that resulted in problems such as the loss of communications between race cars and racing crews and malfunctioning of the cars’ kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS). The problems were so severe that McLaren reportedly had to revert for a time to the previous ECU software version, which has apparently worked reliably since it was introduced in 2008.

McLaren was confident enough that it had fixed the preseason ECU problems that the new software version was used for the inaugural Formula One Grand Prix race in Melbourne. While no problems were discovered during pre-race qualifying, at the beginning of the race, the second fastest qualifying car, driven by Webber, experienced an ECU problem that cut the Red Bull Racing team's ability to monitor the car and shut down the car’s KERS system. The team was forced to reset the system, which cost the Webber valuable time. The KERS system wasn't restored to full functionality until lap 20.

Webber came in sixth, 46.8 seconds off the lead. As noted here, when Formula One race teams—who always sweat the small stuff—look for ways to improve performance by 0.03 second per lap over the course of a 58-lap race, something like an ECU problem is a big deal.

Red Bull Racing blamed the ECU as the source of the problem immediately at the end of the race, Fox Sports Asia reported, but McLaren said in a statement that there wasn’t a problem with the ECU hardware, but with its software: “The electronic units themselves ran without incident in Melbourne, but there was a software-related issue that meant that Mark Webber's Red Bull Racing car's garage data system had to be re-started during the formation lap.”

From the McLaren statement, one can see how the possibility of a hardware as opposed to software issue with the new ECU really scares them.

McLaren apologized for the problems and said that it was was going to work with Red Bull Racing to prevent a further recurrence.  The Red Bull Racing team accepted the apology.  However, McLaren also sounded like it was making excuses—or at least sounding highly defensive—when it also noted in its statement of apology that, “An ECU comprises several thousand parts, tens of thousands of solder connections and hundreds of thousands of lines of software. It is a very complex piece of equipment…”

I don't think Red Bull Racing cares how complex the ECU is. It only wants the gadget to work as advertised.

GM Recalling 26 000 model year 2013 Cadillac SRX crossovers and Buick LaCrosse Sedans for Software Glitch

The LA Times reported last week that General Motors has issued a recall for 26,582 model year 2013 Cadillac SRX crossovers and Buick LaCrosse sedans to correct a software problem that GM says “may cause the transmission to inadvertently shift to Sport mode, removing any transmission-related engine braking effect.” It also states that “if engine braking is unexpectedly removed, it may increase the risk of a vehicle crash.”

The GM recall notice (NHTSA Campaign Number: 13V097000) says the Cadillacs affected were manufactured between 29 May 2012 and 18 February 2013; the Buicks were manufactured between 25 April 2012 and 6 March 2013.

The LA Times reported that GM discovered the problem on a 2014 engineering development vehicle. Repairs to the transmission control unit will be free. Owners will be notified of the recall late this week.

Panama Canal Container Traffic Hit by Computer Problem Affecting Canal Railway

Last Friday, Reuters reported that the Panama Canal Railway Co. which “transports about 1500 containers daily between the only port on the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal and three ports on the Atlantic” suffered a computer problem mid-week that has hampered container traffic. The Reuters story stated that the Panama Ports Co., which manages two of the ports, performed a computer upgrade to its system used for communications with the railway. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned. As a result, only 350 containers were being transported between the ports instead of the typical 1500. Containers were said to be stacking up at the ports as well.

The railway company says that it expects things to return to normal this week.

Debenhams' Turn for Pricing Glitch

The Daily Mail reported last Friday that UK retailer Debenhams had to cancel hundreds of orders for Lands’ End clothing after an online pricing glitch Thursday reduced prices by 99 percent instead of the intended 20 percent discount. So many people tried to order the discounted clothing that the store’s website crashed, reported MoneyAolUK.

Debenhams, which took down its site for a while, said that it would not honor the orders, citing its policy concerning pricing errors. A spokesperson told the Daily Mail that, “We will be contacting all customers who have ordered Lands’ End items to let them know that we can’t fulfill their order and they will receive a full refund. Clearly if this has caused any disappointment then it goes without saying we are sorry.”

Of course, they said "sorry" anyway.

Verizon Wireless Bill Customers for State Taxes Twice in Several U.S. Midwestern States

Television station WEHT in Kentucky reported last week that a “software glitch” was the cause of state tax charges being charged twice on Verizon Wireless customers’ March bill in Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. Verizon says that it has corrected the error, and that customers will be credited for the overcharge in the “next bill or two.”

Two months to do an auto-correct? Really?

A Verizon store manager told WEHT that, “This is the first time. But, you know, first time for everything. Accidents do happen. Mistakes do happen.”

I don’t know if the manager was referring to this specific-type of billing error, but in 2010, Verizon “discovered” that it had been erroneously billing 15 million customers for several years for data sessions on their phones that they did not initiate.

I guess the store manager forgot about that "accident."

Other Hiccups of Interest:

Ebay Software Glitch Wipes Out 10 000 sellers

Google Drive Suffers Three Outages Last Week

NASA Rover Curiosity Has Another Glitch

Photo: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

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