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1997-12-01 12:05:34


Diesel Locomotives and Cars: Forced Maintenance Chips


This lengthy interview is very thought-provoking. The man interviewed is a data specialist with the state of Iowa's Department of Transportation.

I regard some of this information as unconfirmed. I do think it would behoove us to do what we can to seek further evidence, pro or con, regarding his statements.

I have posted elsewhere in this category a state of Texas posting that an estimated one-quarter of all post-1984 fire engines will not start on Jan. 1, 2000. The forced maintenance chips are the problem.

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Interview with Paul French, Tuesday, November 4, 1997 by Paul Dorr, director of Rescue The Perishing, P.O. Box 115, Ocheyedan, IA 51354. eMail

Paul French

Executive Officer, Data Services Division, Iowa Department of Transportation, Ames, Iowa (Accounting Degree from Univ. of Iowa, Minor in Data Processing and is the past Director of Data Processing for another division of the State of Iowa.

Q. Mr. French, my name is Paul Dorr and I'm director of Rescue The Perishing. RTP is a public interest group located in Ocheyedan. I write a newsletter that goes to our constituents covering moral issues, social and sometimes economic issues. The last six months I've been spending sometime looking into this Y2k...(laughter by French)...mess. I was wondering if I could have a brief interview with you and what you might know about it?

A. I have no problem with that but I am curious, how did you get my name?

Q. I learned of you through the state of Iowa's Information Technology Services (ITS) newsletter and have been reading some of your comments in there, on the Year 2000 computer problem.

A. Most of the Y2k stuff that you'll see in the ITS Newsletter ends up coming from me. My assignment is to coordinate the DOT's handling of the Y2k problem.

Q. It seems as if the mainframe problem is serious enough, but this embedded chip problem seems to seriously compound it.

A. Very much so. For example. If you are sitting in an office some place right now, it will have a fire alarm in it, perhaps it has a light system in it that might be set on timers, it might have an automated heating and air conditioning system and all of those have embedded chips in them and most of those won't work. As a matter of fact one major heating and air conditioning company that has their systems in literally millions of buildings, including a lot of government buildings, have yet to build a system that will work. Although they won't tell you that until you get to the absolute top [of the company]. Then you have vehicles...Quite honestly GM's top people have said that cars won't start, come Y2k.

Q. Who did you hear that from?

A. I heard that from the GM people themselves. We have a group here in central Iowa, limited to twenty major employers, and these twenty have been meeting on a monthly basis for many months now. We pool our thoughts and problems, ideas...and information that we've gathered together with companies like Farm Bureau, IMT Insurance, Principal Insurance, City of Des Moines, Polk County, State of Iowa, Pioneer Hi-Bred and so on (we have maybe 250,000 employees among ourselves). We've agreed that on most things we won't hurt ourselves by leaving the room and saying `hey we heard from company XYZ....such and such information.' The only thing I can say is that that information (on GM's cars not starting) came out of that user group meeting.

It's also been confirmed. I spoke at a conference. There were 1,300 people at the conference. I finished speaking and several people came up to me afterwards, like a representative from the rail industry saying there are chips that will stop the diesels (in train engines) on 12/31/1999. It just stops it. The chip is designed to stop a motor when a certain parameter has been exceeded in time and service. The chips designed for the diesel think that at the end of 12/31/99 that it's been almost a hundred years since the diesel's been serviced and it shuts it off. You have these in train engines, trucks, tugboats, and so on. It's all so perfectly sound and logical, yet never having given a thought to the fact that there is a two digit space being used on those chips and when those two digits go from 99 to 00...what'll happen?

Q. What can one do with embedded chips?

A. As a practical matter, unless you are yourself an embedded chip engineer or have access to alot of money or to engineers, what can you do? You have to make a list of things that might cause a problem - we've done that at the DOT and we have about 12,000 items just ourselves - then you go to the manufacturers of those and use whatever clout, negotiating, whatever else you can do, to try to get the manufacturer to at least tell you that they will work on 1/1/2000. Have them put it in writing so you can walk away knowing that the fire alarm system in this building will work and I have a letter in my file from the company that made it that says they will.

Q. I am hearing that the large majority of those who send out such letters to manufacturers are receiving little to nothing for responses.

A. Our central Iowa users group sent out about 300 and got about 40 responses back.

Q. Out of those 40 letters, were they very substantive responses?

A. No! So we started making phone calls. And over the phone some major companies would say to you, "we'll tell you this over the phone, but we won't put it in writing." Others say, "Our legal counsel says we are not to talk about this."

Yet, one of the members of our users group, a major company is just about finished. They have in fact received close enough to a 100% response on embedded chips that they are comfortable with it.

Q. How are they getting responses where others won't?

A. The clout of having 40,000 employees and all the money and size that that brought. Meaning, "Either you make it compliant or tell us in writing that it is compliant or we are no longer buying from you. And if it is not compliant at this moment, put it in writing when it will be.

Q. The Institute of Electrical Engineers of England says that the industry manufactured 7 billion embedded chips in 1996, that an unknown percent of them are doing date-sensitive tasks, (they are estimating 5-15%), but no one knows where they are for sure, so you have to inventory them all.

A. That's it exactly. A good example is washing machines. Who would have thought washing machines would have a problem? Some of them are automated enough now that they are touch pad sensitive to the heat off of your finger. They are very definitely time challenged (different minutes for different wash cycles). Which of those are going to work and which of those aren't. The manufacturers’ themselves don't know.

Q. As Iowans we need those DOT trucks out there moving snow. Are your trucks going to be sensitive? Do they have the same diesel motors you are talking about?

A. Unfortunately, we used to think we were behind times because we would look at the age of our inventory, a lot of our trucks are 8, 10, 12 years old.

Q. (Laughter) So now you are ahead of the curve!

A. Now all of a sudden that is one of the better things that happened to us. (Laughter) Who would have thought? ...typical Iowa conservativeness, you try to get that extra year or two out of that big orange truck, all of a sudden you realize it's a stick shift, it doesn't have any automation on the thing at all and that it's going to get by as long as you don't replace it with a new automated one. Q. And you are saying that out of your user group came high level information that GM is….

A. ...when I spoke on the embedded chips at the Year 2000 conference in San Francisco - and as I said there were 1,300 people at that conference - after the meeting several came up to me and identified themselves as representatives of the companies in the Big 3 (auto manufacturers). One of them asked, "What company were you talking about?" I responded that, "I can't really say, I don't want to be sued, but my middle initial begins with a G." Two of them chuckled and said, "We are from Ford, and we have the same problem."

Q. Do you know what sort of date-sensitive tasks are in these newer cars?

A. GM engineer told me we should liken it to a Christmas tree, configured in the way when you unscrew one bulb the entire string of lights goes out. They have chips in them checking service time, chips logging service time so that you can take it into the dealer he can plug in the system and tell you that 3 months and 2 days and 6 hours back, this particular piece failed and a secondary circuit had to be opened in order to let it…etc. etc. So the time segment of a chip is being challenged several different ways in cars. And he told me that 'the average car has over 100 chips in it.’ And I've read where one automotive engineer said that unless he had worked on that particular model, he would not be able to find where all the chips are located on a car.

Q. What kind of response are you receiving from the (ITS) newsletter or from your own colleagues? Outside of your central Iowa users group, are people taking you seriously? Is there a lot of denial?

A. Yes I think there is and also an of attitude of `oh gosh if it is that big of a problem, they'll take care of it.' And they say `certainly they'll take care of it at their cost.' Let's be realistic now! When even Sony - who is this year's spokesman for the Japanese Industry Council (which by the way also includes the Japanese government) - says that they are behind the curve and they may not make it by the Year 2000. Meaning, if you buy a Sony TV in 1999 and it has all of the wizbang chips, 6-12 months later it might not work.

Q. So what do we do, take it back to Sony, sue all these companies, what are the ramifications here?

A. That is only limited by your imagination. You now have colleges that have law classes that have started to deal with just this issue. We had a big computer firm that came in here (DOT) and they offered us a two and three year warranty. We asked them, "Does that mean that if we buy this computer and it is not Year 2000 compliant that it will be made compliant under the warranty?" They left saying they were going to be talking to their legal counsel and that their warranty would state that it does NOT cover Year 2000.

Q. Do you have suggestions for my readers, what should they do?

A. The only approach I know of is what I am doing here at the Dept. of Transportation; first the most logical, is that you'd had better become aware that this is a serious situation and not to have your head in the proverbial sand and not expect the company, out of the magnanimous generosity of their coffers is going to, Number 1 - find a solution and Number 2 - pay to fix the solution. That's not going to happen! And second, you'd better make a list of the stuff you have to deal with and especially the critical things like heating and air conditioning. I have one of the largest heating and air conditioning control systems in my home and we've (State of Iowa) got it in tons of buildings. This company may tell you that their equipment is compliant is not! Then look around and see what else might have the same problems. You might have a car, a pickup, a heating and air conditioning system, a computer, a home alarm system, a fire alarm system...what all do you have? The DOT is looking at traffic signals, automated generators, airport control systems and on and on. Once you've figured out what you've got, the only thing you can do is go to the manufacturer. How? Write, call, contact, harass.

Q. If everyone in the world starts to do that at the same time the manufacturers are going to be overwhelmed.

A. Wonderful, but at least they'll do something. I've talked to the Maytag engineers. Maytag says they have stopped making the automated ones and all of theirs now has the internal technology of the 1950's (ie. springs) - they look pretty on the outside but there is no automation on the inside to fail. I pursued Whirlpool...several of their models may have chips that will fail.

Q. Are you storing up any food or drilling an extra water well for you and your family? Like you say it's only limited to your imagination. Some of the consequences here could be...we don't know!

A. That's right! It may seem foolish now. I've read where some have said, `have people even considered the water?' Water is pumped and the pumps are generally run on systems that have embedded chips in them.

Q. I have written a letter to Governor Branstad and said to him that the Y2k program leaders that I have read are crying out for political and business leaders to stand up and say `this is a major problem that needs to be conquered and to then lead the people in their own organizations. And they should let the people know that this thing is real and do it before it's too late and we are all out of options.

A. Yet in many respects the state is computer user no more than Pioneer Company or anyone else. It's nothing the State can fix, they have to shake the tree like any user.

Q. I read where Citicorp has come out and said they are falling behind on their Y2k compliance and that one area they are alarmed with is their telecommunications vendors are not telling them whether the chips on their telephone switching equipment are compliant or not. They said what they are seeing is that the vendors are playing chicken and that no one wants to expose their vulnerabilities to their competitors and to the marketplace and so they are all standing back and waiting for their competition to acknowledge before they do and thus very little is getting done, or very little substantive and Citicorp is concerned that their phone systems won't work. If banks don't have phone service, banks go down.

A. And from what our engineering folks have looked at things like (telecommunication) routers may not work.

Q. I was hoping that what I've been reading has been exaggerated, but you really are confirming most everything that is being said out there.

A. That's where we are at. My specific concern is trying to make sure that the DOT is as ready as we ever can be, but we are only going to be as ready as the companies making the things for us are.

Q. One of the issues being raised is if our ability to produce the seeds that farmers need to plant to produce their crops is impaired, and we have very little open-pollinated seed anymore (it's all hybrid seeds that require the farmer to go back to the producer each year), and if the hybrids aren’t there, we can't plant crops and then the food chain may be disrupted. Can you say if Pioneer Hi-bred is on top of this, from what you are hearing?

A. As a practical matter, their awareness level is at the point where they asked for, and I gave them all the materials that I've used to take an inventory. And they are at the point of starting to look at what items that they have that are subject to embedded chips and are proceeding down the same path that I am proceeding. I am at the point of contacting the companies that make the stuff. Pioneer is at the point of beginning to count. They've passed the threshold of awareness and they are starting to look at it.

Q. I appreciate your time to visit with me about this today.

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