A New Year's Day drive could take you to Carmageddon if your sophisticated ECU systems decide to return motoring to the Victorian era
DON'T PANIC. `Millennium Bug' is arguably the most overused and annoying phrase of 1999. Theoretically, and if all goes well, throughout the year 2000, we will be laughing in the face of this mythical creature. However, no matter how rational you are, there is still a nagging doubt that when you wake up on the morning of 1 January, not only will you find a 747 in your back yard, but also your electronically-complex car won't start. And even supposing that it did, you would only get stuck in some bug-induced traffic chaos. So are we right to suffer a little pre-millennium tension, or is there really nothing to worry about?

"We are top of the Premier League," said a confident spokesperson for the government body Action 2000. "We are the Manchester United of this world when it comes to the millennium bug, being the only country which has had all its systems independently assessed." Actually, Leeds were top of the league when I rang Action 2000, but I thought that it would be petty to contradict.

In case you haven't been paying attention for the last year the bug is this: computers were programmed using a binary system that recognises only the final two digits. So when 99 becomes 00 there is a chance that the computer will believe we've all rewound to the Victorian era. Confused, it may just shut the system it is controlling down until some humanoid sorts out the problem. If the problem is a traffic light, or a vehicle's electronic control unit (ECU), the result is chaos. Well, that is what the AA suggests.

The AA conducted a survey of major manufacturers and their component suppliers and although vital systems like ABS brakes and air bags were deemed bug-proof there were doubts about ECUs. "We put 10 tough and pertinent questions to the top manufacturers and most responded only by saying they could not see why their products should be affected - which is not the same as saying they're foolproof." The AA's technical policy chief, John Stubbs, is concerned. "There is a theoretical risk that the computers and chips in some cars could fail," he continues.

"We don't expect there to be a vast flood of bug-driven failures but the potential problem is there nonetheless."

The AA identified cars aged between three and eight years old as being the most at risk. Faulty engine management systems could upset fuel injection or timing mechanisms and impair performance, while chips embedded in other systems could have a date facility which will fail. Mr Stubbs wouldn't leave it there. "What could happen is that old software may have been inter-mixed with the new software in some cases, therefore passing on a bug unknown to manufacturers."

So what does the RAC think? "There have been a number of `Armageddon' type predictions being made about vehicles, road infrastructure and computer systems," says Technical Director David Bizley. "As far as the RAC is concerned, we are taking a `business as usual' approach, with additional resources in place to cover the anticipated extra volumes of calls as more people may travel over the millennium period. We are increasingly reassured that motor vehicles and main infrastructure systems like traffic lights will not suffer critical failures on 1 January."

Confused? You have every right to be as the country's two largest motoring organisations contradict each other. So let's try and get to the truth.

BMWs are complicated cars. One of the first manufacturers to have ECUs, ABS brakes and lots of other on-board electronic systems, but those Bavarians are very clever. They have been using four-digit microprocessors since the late-Seventies. It is the same story at Ford, where a spokesman says: "the chips in our cars are not date cycled; they rely on other factors like distance to operate. Anyway, we have been planning for 2000 since 1994 so all our plants and products comply."

The mighty General Motors, who own Vauxhall in the UK, have also been preparing for the bug over a long period and to quote them: "both General Motors and Vauxhall anticipate no problems with past, current, or future vehicle models, and no significant disruption of business as a result of the Year 2000 problem."

Robert Bosch - makers of a vast majority of underbonnet black boxes as well as sound, security and navigation systems - are equally confident. "We have been Y2K-compliant for some time. Clocks in cars and on radios are not real time devices, so they won't be affected. There are some date- based security systems on the market that may have a problem, but that won't affect any of our products."

The motor industry is confident and so is the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, who confirm that: "all traffic control equipment, road management systems, and all motorway and trunk road equipment, including matrix signs and emergency telephones are assessed 100% blue." Blue is very good, incidentally - it effectively means all clear.

Action 2000 website www.bug2000.co.uk