Endless Preparation

Why does it always take so long to get ready for a trip? A million chores have to be completed in the 24 hours preceding departure.

Audi didn’t manage to find the problem with the wing mirrors not folding in or out. They can’t have looked very hard, though, because my trusty laptop and magic cable took just a couple of minutes to determine that there is an intermittent “short to ground” in the mirror motors of both the driver and passenger doors. Of course, Audi’s bill for their trouble, which arrived today, includes a labour charge for time spent investigating the problem. Right. I don’t think so. I’ll have to get that sorted out when we get back.

I’ve just burned a pile of CDs to keep Eloïse amused in the car. We considered giving her her own digital music player, but I don’t like the idea of isolating family members behind a set of headphones. I’d rather pay the price of having to listen to her music while I drive than lose the ability to talk to her about the trip ahead and the things we see passing by the window.

I realise now that I never blogged about my impressions of Disneyland in Paris.

Well, it struck me as a rather surreal form of concentration camp, in which victims of commercial indoctrination voluntarily incarcerate themselves for multiple days at a time. Hard labour in the form of endless queueing is then the order of the day, sustained by a shamefully poor diet whose caloric content is inversely proportional to its nutritional value.

In short, Disneyland is best enjoyed if you find yourself gently hovering somewhere between the predicates ‘moron’ and ‘idiot’. If you have a double digit IQ or a single digit age, Disneyland is the place for you; as long as you have a quadruple digit budget, that is.

The worst cases, the irretrievably insane, can be easily spotted: they are the ones unaccompanied by children. What these people are doing there is anybody’s guess.

As I probably wrote at the time, though, Eloïse had a great time, although even she was saying that she wanted to go home on the last day. She even rode the Tower of Terror a couple of times, a ride that had grown men screaming.

We have a five hour drive ahead of us tomorrow to Kiel in Germany. It might not sound like much, but it’s long enough with a baby in the car. Speaking of Lucas, we bought him a pair of sunglasses today, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll be prepared to leave them on.

The Wait

Here I am again at Audi, waiting for summer and air-conditioning checks to be carried out in preparation for our trip.

The fan in the car actually started growling after I made the appointment to have the airco checked over, as if the car knew that now was the time to start throwing in the towel.

At the start of the drive here, the electrically driven side mirrors decided not to fold in or out any more, so now those have to be looked at, too. The more electronics in a car (or anything else, for that matter), the more that go wrong. Still, better now than a week from now, when we’ll be in the Baltics.

I wanted to title this entry Waiting Room, but the computer here wanted to complete the title for me, revealing that I must have used that title the last time I blogged from here. I’m nothing if not consistent, is one possible conclusion.

Car Hacking

With our trip to the Baltics just around the corner, I was contemplating the many kilometres of driving ahead and this soon had me recalling our trip across central Europe in 2006. In particular, I clearly remember how our sat-nav system thought we’d fallen off the edge of the earth when we entered Hungary. Map coverage in Czechia and Slovakia was also decidedly spotty. The latter country had no coverage at all outside of the capital, Bratislava.

In the case of the Baltic states, I knew that these countries weren’t covered at all by our system. That’s hardly surprising, because the DVD containing the maps identifies itself as being for western Europe.

That rather implies that there are other DVDs available for other regions of the continent, so I went looking on-line to see if I could find a reference to one for the area in which we’re interested.

I soon made the pleasant discovery that the 2009 Audi navigation DVD has an expanded country list that includes the Baltic states. The bad news is that Audi charges a ridiculous amount of money for an a copy of the uodated DVD: between €200-300, depending on how generous they’re feeling.

I paid this fee a couple of years ago, when Audi were offering a special deal, whereby they would update your MMI (Multi Media Interface, the car’s software user interface) to the latest version and supply you with the latest sat-nav DVD for a single, reduced price . This combination deal was being offered because Audi had just released a localised MMI translation for the Dutch market, along with spoken navigation directions in the Dutch language.

This isn’t the kind of money I feel is reasonable to demand for annual incremental improvements to the map coverage, however, so I decided that I would scout around on-line and try to find a copy of the 2009 DVD by other means.

As you might expect. it didn’t take very long.

Whilst looking for the item in question, I also discovered that my MMI was now long out-of-date; hardly surprising, really, since it had been two years since Audi performed the last one.

So, in addition to the DVD image I’d found, I also downloaded three CD images containing the latest MMI software. With information gleaned from a couple of Audi Web forums, I now possessed the necessary knowledge to initiate the update process.

Flashing your digital camera or PlayStation is one thing, but the prospect of bricking one’s car had me slightly more nervous than I would normally be at the prospect of installing new firmware on a piece of hardware. My nervousness only increased as the update got under way, with the software issuing grave warnings against causing any fluctuations in the supply voltage, for example by operating the windows or sun-roof.

Everything went smoothly, however, and I can report that our car is now running the very latest version of the MMI: 55.7.0 0835.

Immeasurably more pleasing, however, is that our sat-nav now boasts coverage of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Quite how good that coverage actually is, though, will become apparent in a matter of a week or so. I suspect that only certain cities will be covered, with few, if any, interconnecting roads. Still, anything’s better than nothing.

While searching for information on Audi MMI software updates, I came across a couple of interesting postings that indicated that one’s battery charge level indicator could disappear from the MMI after applying an update. This was interesting to me, because mine had disappeared two years earlier when Audi applied the last update.

I had noticed this immediately and queried Audi as to the reason. They told me that the battery meter had been removed from the latest version of the software, because it was considered unreliable.

Imagine my surprise when I read in this Audi enthusiasts’ forum that the loss of the battery meter was actually an expected, if undesirable side-effect of applying the MMI update, and that an Audi technical service bulletin (TSB), issued at the time to guide official Audi mechanics through the specifics of the new software release, indicates that the battery meter is turned off by default in the new version. In other words, it needs to be reenabled after updating.

Not only that, but a second MMI feature that allows instrument cluster settings to be modified turned out to have disappeared at the same time as the battery meter. I never use that menu, though, so I’d never noticed that it was missing until I read about it in the forum.

The main point here, of course, is that Audi had carried out the update improperly. The two features in question should have been manually restored after updating the MMI two years ago. Does no-one RTFM these days?

Further reading taught me that the missing features can be restored without the intervention of an Audi dealer. One needs only a laptop, some software and the means to connect the laptop to the car.

Needless to say, the prospect of being able to hack my own car was one that I stoically managed to resist for all of 24 hours.

Within a few days, the required cable had arrived from the US and I excitedly headed out to the car to connect my laptop to the same port used by Audi dealers to connect their much more expensive VAS 5051/5052 diagnostic computers.

A few minutes later, the missing menu entries were restored. I also took the time to enable a hidden MMI menu that allows access to a number of low level MMI settings. I can get to this menu now by holding down the CAR + SETUP buttons for five seconds.

Finally, I ran a diagnostics check of all of the control modules installed in the car. Checking these is the first thing Audi does if you take your car to the garage with some kind of complaint. Of course, Audi charges by the hour, so time spent diagnosing problems costs you as much as time spent fixing them. Using my new gear, I can find out which modules, if any, are indicating faults, before I even call Audi to make an appointment.

As it turns out, I found multiple fault conditions that Audi had failed to clear on previous visits to the garage, including some caused by them when they had decoupled certain systems in order to work on the car.

Normally, one has no insight into this kind of thing and simply has to assume that everything is being performed expertly and by the book. The missing MMI features and the failure to clear fault conditions indicate to me that the situation at an average Audi garage isn’t any better than at any other place where one would hope to find technical expertise and methodical work practices.

As usual, if you want a job done well, you have to do it yourself. There’s a very real limit to my expertise with the car, of course and tt ends well before the electronics turn into the mechanics. It’s not as if I don’t need the garage any more. On the other hand, I have, at least, managed to fix the problem that I set out to fix.

If I had called Audi about the problem, it’s possible they would have continued to claim that the menus in question were no longer available in this release of the software. It’s equally plausible that they might have been reluctant to hook up the car to their computer to fix the problem. And, of course, it’s not unthinkable that they might have simply been unable to fix it, due to the same lack of knowledge that caused the problem in the first place. It would be an awkward conversation in which I had to refer Audi to their own internal bulletin in order to educate them about the solution for my problem.

From my little excursion into the inner workings of the car’s brain, it’s clear that a good mechanic has to be at least as competent in the field of system administration. That’s hardly surprising, of course, because for years now, computers have been taking over more and more functions of the car and an increasingly large number of faults can now be diagnosed with and fixed in software alone.

Unfortunately, the ever-expanding skill set required to maintain the modern car obviously isn’t something that we, the consumer, can take for granted. For that reason, being able to make simple changes in software and run diagnostic checks is a very welcome addition to the home toolbox, to say nothing of the satisfying hacker experience of hooking up a laptop to your car.

Waiting Room

I’m blogging at the Audi dealer, while our car is fitted with a new starter relay. This will hopefully solve the problems we’ve had recently when starting the car.

Outside, it’s rainy, the first rainy day we’ve had in a week, more or less. Florence and Mike, Sarah’s parents, always assure us of good weather when they visit.

I’ve spent most of the week coding, adding signature authentication to Ruby/AWS, and fixing the massive breakage caused to my MythTV grabber by UPC’s complete overhaul of their on-line TV guide. This second project is rather urgent and has consumed rather a lot of hours, as many users have been left out in the cold by UPC’s changes. That’s the inherently problematic nature of a screen-scraper for you.

Across from me, a brand-spanking-new, black 5.2 litre V10 Audi R8 beckons to be test-driven. I don’t usually go in for short-dick-man cars, but this one’s a beauty, and a snip at just under €250,000. However, much like the computer used by Little Britain’s sullen receptionist cum travel-agent, Sarah says, “No.”

She’s right, of course. I have enough difficulty keeping the battery charged on our current car, because it doesn’t get driven even once a week at the moment. An R8, as nice as it is, would undergo a brief period of gratuitous daily driving and then sit and rot in the driveway.

When I do need to drive, it’s usually with the whole family in tow, so what use is a two-seater?

But dreaming is gratis, right?

Car Flashing

Did you know you can reboot and reinstall a car? That’s what happened to ours today, when I took our trusty A6 Avant down to the Audi dealer to have its MMI (user interface to you and me) updated.

The car emerged two hours and a few CD downloads later, sporting version C6-HU 34.6.0 0647 of the MMI software (hitherto C6-HU 21.2.0 0534, in case you wondered). As if by magic, the car now also speaks Dutch (and a few other new languages, such as Portuguese and Russian) when instructing me how to get from A to B.

The navigation system now offers a 3D view, with the camera angle slightly tilted to give the impression of being somewhat elevated above the ground. Perhaps the software update has added other useful new features, but I didn’t encounter them on the short drive home.

The new 3D view is nice, because the viewing angle compacts the field of view, which means one can see more of the surrounding area than when in 2D, even when the zoom is set identically, say at 400m.

It also works well with ‘junction zoom’, whereby the system zooms in ever closer as one approaches a junction at which a new manoeuvre is required, such as turning left or right.

The only thing I don’t like about the 3D view is that most streets don’t have their name displayed along them, which is the case at the same zoom level in the 2D view. It also seems impossible to obtain north orientation for the map (even though you can configure it for same), probably to avoid confusion or perhaps impractically sharp viewing angles when travelling east or west. Who knows?

Since Audi had a special offer going, I took the opportunity to avail myself of the latest Western Europe DVD for the sat-nav system, too, so perhaps the woman with the dulcet tones will now be less determined to send me via the perpetually languid Overtoom when I ask for directions to pretty much any destination inside the ring (A10).

Poland and Hungary have been added to the list of countries for which there are maps and guidance data, which could prove handy. Hungary would have been good to have a year ago, but at least we’re now covered if we choose to return.

It’s strange to witness a car being rebooted and reprogrammed, as I tend to still think of them as predominantly mechanical machines, but they’ve really been powerful computers on wheels for quite a long time now. Nevertheless, it still amuses me to think that a car can be improved and have features added by installing a new version of the software.

Similarly, it can have new bugs introduced in the same way, so I hope not too many of those have crept in.