<a name="4"> How Year 2000 Date Chaos (caused by Millennium Bug) will affect Consumers <a name="5"> The Sunday Times (UK)

6th April, 1997

by Peter Warren

Computer chaos in 2000 may stop cars and fridges

THE millennium time bomb is ticking louder. With 999 days left to the year 2000, experts warn that the chaos caused by computers unable to cope with the change of date will be worse than feared. Never mind corporate computers, you are likely to wake up to disaster at home.

"Slave" chips controlling domestic appliances and basic household services may, like big corporate computers, be unable to cope with the year 2000 described in computer language simply as 00. You may wake on New Year's Day 2000 with a throbbing head and dry mouth to find your burglar alarm has gone off. As the siren shrieks, you stumble downstairs where you discover that the fridge is defrosting and the boiler has shut down.

Do not try to cook breakfast in the microwave or think you can divert the children with a video these chips may have failed as well. Call for help? Getting the numbers out of your personal organiser will be impossible. Its chip will have been turned off, unable to cope with the fact that it has leapt 100 years backwards.

"People don't realise that there are chips everywhere, from gas and water systems to oil rigs and home videos," said Robin Guernier, former chief executive of the government's Central Computing and Telecommunications Agency, now head of Taskforce 2000, set up by the government to deal with the millennium time bomb.

"On new year's day, many of those chips will make the assumption that it is 1900 and that is going to cause disaster. It's a deadline we can't afford to miss and I think it's very worrying," said Guernier.

Outside, in the dawn of a new century, technology will be going haywire. Your car may not start, according to Tony Handley of SAS International, a database company. If it has a chip controlling its engine, it may no longer be able to compute, though Ford says its engine management systems will not be affected. Traffic lights may also fail. And if you do make it to the office the following day, you may not get in or be able to use the lifts.

"In offices, embedded chips in security systems will have the wrong day and may keep the doors locked," said Handley. Otis, the lift maker, is carrying out tests on its computer controlled lifts and will notify customers "in the unlikely event that action must be taken".

The problem is not just one of installing new software, but of replacing chips that have become "locked" and inoperable. Many chips have internal timing mechanisms but these are so small that they may only register two digits, clocking on from 97 to 98, then 99. When they reach 2000 it will register 00 which either means nothing to the chip or, if it is sophisticated enough, it will read in 1900.

Either way the results could be catastrophic.

Estimates vary over the cost of fixing each tiny chip in millions of machines, but everyone agrees it will be more than they expect. Already the four clearing banks have said that coping with both chips and software problems will cost them at least £500m. BT has admitted to £300m but is understood to be spending double that, while the government must find £1 billion and has made no extra funding available.

"Nobody knows how much this is going to cost, and the numbers I'm looking at are absolutely scary," said Guernier, pointing to the National Health Service as just one example. "I estimate that each hospital will have to spend around £3m to £4m because computer systems now run everything from drips to patients' waiting lists."

Guernier has experienced apathy from many of the companies he has contacted. Only 35% of the water, gas and electricity companies likely to be affected because of their dependence on chip control systems have bothered to reply to his letters.

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