It was on Sunday afternoon, Jan. 30, driving in Ballard, that Dave Welding entered the world of car computers gone amok.
He drives a 2016 Mazda hatchback. It turns out that about the same time, the same thing was happening to other local Mazda owners who had this in common:
They drove a 2014 to 2017 model Mazda, and they had tuned into KUOW, 94.9 on the FM dial, the NPR station.
That’s all it took.
Somehow the signal the station sent to the modern HD Radio that’s part of the Mazda infotainment center had, as Welding puts it, “fried” a major component.
That frying made the radios only play KUOW. No chance of catching a little classic rock or some Dori soliloquies. KUOW. Forever.
Also gone from the infotainment center were such features as Bluetooth, navigation, the clock and vehicle stats — “Many of the features I paid for when I bought it new,” Welding says.
It was as if the infotainment center had decided to team up with the ghost of HAL. You remember that malfunctioning, soft-spoken and ultimately sinister artificial intelligence computer from “2001: A Space Odyssey”?
That movie was released 54 years ago; now, there are just more HALs out there.
As the radio remained frozen, the rebooting visuals on the screen in the middle of the dashboard were just too distracting when he was driving. Welding ended up covering the spot with cardboard.
“The lower right field of my vision was seeing like a TV screen going on and off,” he says. Over and over, the screen showed the Mazda logo, then there would be a flash, then the logo split into five new logos.
As he checked a Reddit Mazda site, Welding found he wasn’t the only one with such problems — and all were KUOW listeners.
That’s all it took. That signal somehow affected older software in 2014-2017 Mazdas, says Mazda North American Operations.
Welding says that when he contacted Lee Johnson Mazda of Seattle, “They told me that there’s nothing they can do about it, that I needed a new CMU unit, that it cost $1,500 and that they didn’t have the part.”
The Mazda dealer referred calls for comment to Mazda corporate headquarters.
Lorenzo Pieruccioni, service manager at Mazda of Olympia, says he’s had seven to 10 customers with the rebooting problems. He tells them their CMU is corrupted.
That stands for “Connectivity Master Unit,” and it controls the video and audio signals to that infotainment system. That’s the $1,500 gizmo that is not available and who knows when it will be.
His assessment: “It’s just weird.”
On Tuesday evening, Mazda emailed that it had “distributed service alerts” to dealers, that “impacted customers” should contact their local dealer “who can submit a goodwill request to the Mazda Warranty department on their behalf, order the parts, and schedule a free repair when the parts arrive.”
About when the parts might arrive.
Who knows, especially with the semiconductor shortage.
Stephanie Marquis, of Olympia, a 2015 Mazda hatchback owner, posted on Reddit about the complaints, “Seattle dealer said they’ve had tons since last week. I find it hard to believe it’s the cause of one station.”
In an interview, she said the rebooting began two weeks ago. She had hope one night that the infotainment center had fixed itself.
“One night I was driving and my back camera came on for a few minutes. I thought this is awful driving with this on,” she says.
Then the system shut down completely. Then it came on and she could change radio stations. She parked the car and when returning a couple of hours later, was hopeful the infotainment center would work. But, no dice. “It doesn’t work. Hasn’t worked since.”
As to how KUOW got involved in all this, that’s not quite clear.
Dane Johnson, director of operations at KUOW, says the station has been in contact with one those companies with one of those names that don’t quite explain what they do. It’s called Xperi Holding Corporation, of San Jose, California, and it’s the parent company of HD Radio.
The latter is the technology that allows for digital radio broadcasting, and is at the heart of an infotainment center such as the one in Mazdas. Somewhere in transmission between KUOW and HD Radio something happened.
Xperi issued this one statement: “KUOW has made us aware of this and we are assisting in addressing it promptly.”
Want a perspective on all this?
It’s from professor Dan Tappan, of Eastern Washington University’s Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering.
He says he’s planning to use the fiasco as an example in his software classes.
Even low-end vehicles these days are approaching 100 million lines of code, and 100 electronic control units, according to a June paper published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.
All that computerization, says Tappan, is great for anti-lock brakes, air bags and stability control.
As for the infotainment side of things, well …
“Most people don’t use them, don’t care,” Tappan says about many of the many features in infotainment systems. “Often they are the areas most vulnerable to failure.”
Mazda headquarters says the problem was that KUOW “sent image files with no extension.”
The files would be maybe the album cover of a song being played on the radio, or its release date, “to, quote, improve the experience,” says Tappan.
What could have happened, says the professor, is that the station sent a file that didn’t identify its format, whether a Word document or image such as a JPEG.
The computer in the car should not have ever opened the file.
But it might have tried, just trying to be a good computer, as HAL thought he was, misinterpreting the format, executing it badly and, well, $1,500.
Welding says he’s thinking about decorating the cardboard on his infotainment screen. “Something calming,” he says.