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Open Source and Hot Rods

Open Source and Hot Rods

  • Comments 73

I was surfing the web the other day and ran into someone linking to this article by Jack Lanier from Edmunds (the automotive newsletter people).

The article's entitled "Friends Don't Let Friends Modify Cars".

From the article:

Today, it's difficult to make cars better and extremely easy to make them worse. Or dangerous.

As a journalist driving modified cars, I've been sprayed with gasoline, boiling coolant, super-heated transmission fluid and nitrous oxide. (The latter was more entertaining than the former.) Several have burst into flames. Throttles have stuck wide open, brake calipers snapped clean off, suspensions ripped from their mounts and seatbelt mounting hardware has dropped into my lap. All this is on top of the expected thrown connecting rod, blown head gasket, exploded clutch, disintegrated turbocharger and broken timing belt.

The vast majority of these vehicles were built by professionals. Many were from big-name tuners. Most performed as if they were constructed in a shop class at a high school with a lax drug policy. Once, after a suspension component fell off a car from a big-name tuner, the car actually handled better.

For every modified and tuner car that performed better than stock, I've driven numerous examples that were slower. If they were quicker, it was often in an area that can't be used on the street. What's the use of gaining 0.2 second in the quarter-mile if the car is slower 0-60 mph? And costs $10,000 more?


Recently, I autocrossed a pair of Subaru WRXs. One was a dead-stock WRX. The other, a tricked-out STi lowered with stiffer springs, shocks and bars and an exhaust kit and air filter. The STi is supposed to have an advantage of some 70 horsepower. Maybe the exhaust and filter moved the power up in the rev band where it couldn't be used. The lowered, stiffened STi regularly bottomed against its bump stops. When a car hits its bump stops, the spring rate goes to infinity and tire grip drops to near zero. This caused the STi to leap into the worst understeer I've experienced with inflated front tires. Meanwhile, in the unmodified WRX, I could be hard in the throttle at the same point. The result: The dead-stock WRX was at least as quick as the STi and far easier to drive. Easy to make worse, harder to make better

I read this article and was struck by the similarities between this and the open source vs COTS model.

COTS (Commercial Off The Shelf) software is equivalent to a stock automobile.  They're built by professional engineers, and tested as a whole.  But you don't get to mess with the system.

On the other hand, open source gives you the ability to join the software equivalent of the tuner/modified market - you can tweak the system to your hearts content.  You may make it go faster, but you're not totally sure what it's going to do to the overall quality of the system.

In fact, I constantly read that that's one of the huge benefits of open source - on an open source project, if you don't like how something works, you can just step in and fix it, while with COTS you don't have that ability.

Software engineering is software engineering, whether it's open source or closed source.  Having the ability to tweak code (or an automobile) doesn't automatically mean that the tweak will be higher quality than what it's replacing.  It's entirely possible that it either won't be better, or that the improvement won't really matter.  On the IMAP mailing list, I CONSTANTLY see people submitting patches to the U.W. IMAP server proposing tweaks to fix one thing or another (even though it’s the wrong mailing list, the patches still come in).  And Mark Crispin shoots them down all the time, because the person making the patch didn’t really understand the system – their patch might have fixed their problem and their configuration, but it either opened up a security hole, or broke some other configuration, etc.

Btw, the same thing holds true for system modifications.  Just because you can put a window into a hard disk doesn’t mean that the hard disk is going to work as well afterwards as it did before you took it apart.

Just like in the automotive world, simply because you CAN modify something, it doesn't mean that it's a good idea to modify it.

  • <quote>
    Oh wait, if you start looking at the software on the chips that run the car, you ARE breaking the law.
    Not if you do it for compatibility. If you're designing a satellite navigator that has to connect to some chip in the car, you can reverse engineer it. Microsoft itself does that all the time to keep backwards compatibility, just look at how the sims was kept working on new versions of windows...

    You have no idea :) You have REALLY no idea how much worse Win9x could have been :)
    oh yes, it could not boot at all :-)
    Still a friend of mine says he prefers win98 to xp.

    Oh wait, you can't go and buy a 3rd party door for your car without voiding the warrenty.
    BTW I beleive you meant warranty, not warrenty

  • Nicholas,
    I was unaware of that. I wonder how Ford would feel if someone came in for warranty service on an engine and they found a 3rd party fuel injector on it though.

    According to this site: the MR Warranty act has no teeth - it doesn't mean you can't have your warranty voided, it just means that you can sue to get the warranty enforced.

    This modding site says similar things:

    I'm not a lawyer, but I suspect that the automotive companies protect the IP in your car rather furiously.

    Andrew: I'd challenge your comment about poorly made and poorly tested.
  • Allrighty, how about some mundane part in your car breaks. Say the break light. Easy enough to fix if you are allowed to. With a closed source car you're stuck waiting until somebody gets around to changing your bulb. With an open source car you go switch it out and continue on your way.

    We can do silly metaphors all day and you won't convince anyone that closed source is better than open source.

    I think the most overlooked value of open source is the learning that can take place from it. If you give a beginning programmer access to good source code they can learn from it and in turn produce even better code; on the shoulders of giants and so forth.
  • Kristoffer, good points.

    And you're right about the ability to see the source. Jason Matusow (director of shared source at MS) has some related thoughts here:

    It's worth reading.
  • How many custom cars make it to the mainstream market? Most of the mods mentioned seem to have failed terribly on the first try, so it's unlikely it will be done again.

    It's certainly true most patches, like car mods, are poorly designed or implemented or just plain unnecessary. But just like that journalist, the open-source community are the test-drivers who evaluate or try the patch. They report just how bad of an idea it is - or maybe they pick up on a really neat idea or fix.

    Hopefully the person who used an undersized bolt on the brake calipers would learn from experience and not repeat his mistake. We can hope for the same in the open-source community.

    Is trial-and-error the best way to learn good engineering practices? Perhaps not.

    But with closed-source software, that is not even an option.


    P.S. Whether software developers are improving their trade is another debate. I have been less than impressed with this industry - and I am in the industry.
  • Kristoffer, good points.

    And you're right about the ability to see the source. Jason Matusow (director of shared source at MS) has some related thoughts here:

    It's worth reading.
  • The problem with the analogy is that a lot of open source is built by software professionals, not by some hobbyist users. They do get paid for it (a lot of the time with taxes collected from all of us) and they do create code that's at least on par with COTS software. Also most users do not modify their open source, that's just not sustainable as you would either be stuck with your version or would have to port your changes to every new release but rather they submit their changes/fixes to the original developers to put it in.

    And another point in the car/open source software analogy that doesn't hold up - open source software is not modified commercial code. It's code started from scratch. Even projects that od start with commercial code eventually realize that it doesn't work (wink wink). Comparing it to patched up commecrial cars doesn't work.
  • Larry,
    You're right that Ford may have an argument that your fuel injector damaged the engine. But they'd have a burden to explain why that's the case. And it would certainly be difficult to explain why your new door panels caused the engine to fail.

    I'm not sure what that argument about "no teeth" is about. Every law is like that! Laws provide a means of relief not prevention.

    Car companies certainly do protect their IP. Looking is not restricted by copyrights, patents, or other common IP protections though. You can sign a contract promising not to look and that would stop you (from above, it wouldn't actually stop you but they could sue for relief if you did look). You can sell your car to whoever you please and they've never signed a contract with the manufacturer. That makes it tougher to restrict what you can do.
  • For all those patches you see that mess things up, there are a few -- 1 or 2 percent, perhaps -- that help things. (If you don't see any, it probably has something to do with looking on the wrong list.) That's one difference between the quality of open source and closed source software -- in the closed source world, that 2% doesn't exist.

    Not only that, but perhaps the patch that fixes their config, but breaks somebody else's, is good enough for them. My father's car used to have stiffer back suspension springs -- a mod. It was good for him, because he had a couple tons of stuff in his trunk all the time. It would probably have been very bad for the average user of that make & model of car, but that wasn't a concern for him.

    Open source, when it works, is taking the best parts from millions of shop students with lax drug policies, and putting them together. If you have a good person putting them together, you can get a pretty impressive machine out of it... assuming a few of the kids in shop class actually have decent skills.
  • Ivan, that's off-topic. The issue under discussion is solely the ability to tinker and tweak your open source distribution.

    Protection from vendor failure is off-topic.
  • Yeah, but Larry there's a big difference between wanting to change out the gearbox and wanting to be able to put a new steering wheel on the car. I can't even change the seats easily in Windows. The best I can do is buy aloha print seatcovers and put them over the seats.
  • Another problem with closed source is that if the vendor goes bust, in most cases you're f%&*$d up, end of story. With open source, even if all developers find something better to do and abandon the app, you can always hire someone to maintain/improve the app for you, and that may be a very good thing if your business depends on it.

  • There was an interesting article that was published a couple of months ago that had a similar theme:
  • Stuart,
    So you're saying that the open source model requires a single gate-keeper to ensure the quality of the product?

    What happened to the bazaar if only one person (or one set of persons) decides what gets contributed?
  • Your UW IMAP example demonstrates not a weakness of the Open Source model, but a strength.

    If 100 bad patches come in and are ignored, nothing is lost for anyone (and the people who wanted the tweak can use it, or not if they come to an understanding of why it's a bad idea). If one good patch comes in and is accepted, something is gained for *everyone* who uses the software.

    The open source software gains one improvement out of 101 submissions.

    The closed source software never gets any submissions and never gains anything.

    Which is better off? The open source one.
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