Failed electronics left me stranded in the outback and cost $12,000

By Unsealed 4X4 10 Min Read

We were on a four-month trip around Australia in our Land Rover Discovery. It was about six months after the Queensland floods. The great body of floodwater was tracking towards Lake Eyre, Australia’s plug-hole. We had just made it to Birdsville, only to find that the Simpson Desert was closed due to flooding. It was the first thing to go wrong in a series of unfortunate events over the next few weeks.

Trying to make the best of it, we then tracked south, west and then north, skirting the desert’s periphery. The outback was freakishly green and full of mice that had been forcefully relocated by the flood waters.

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Our first stop for the trip was at the tranquil Dalhousie Springs. We spent the first night approximately five metres downwind of the drop loos. Needless to say, we relocated our tents and vehicles to a less odorous location the next day, and enjoyed a more pleasant evening. We had a good chuckle when a fellow camper told us about the Mercedes test team that recently had to tow their test vehicles out of the Simpson due to breakdowns. Weren’t we feeling smug!

“The next morning was going fine, that is until we tried to start our 2006 Land Rover Discovery”

The next morning was going fine, that is until we tried to start our 2006 Land Rover Discovery 3. There was nothing, not even the glow of an interior light. This was indeed puzzling. Especially as we had had no draw whatsoever on the battery overnight, and it was now reading just five volts. It was a bonding experience for the blokes at camp looking under the bonnet. Soon enough every old codger at Dalhousie had his head under there too, providing unsolicited technical assistance and advice. The overall consensus was that we should be driving a 1950s Holden, or a vehicle without any electronics whatsoever.

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We proceeded to swap out the flat battery for a fresh one, and still nothing. During the “tinker-time,” a mouse was spotted hiding in the insulation under the manifold.


One of the mice displaced by the floods had relocated to our engine bay and made its home out of our wiring – or so we thought at the time. With no facilities at Dalhousie, and no other choices, we decided to road-tow the Disco to Mount Dare, 70km away.

It was a strenuous four hour drive to say the least. Three-and-a-half tons without power steering or power brakes and air suspension riding on the bump stops. Not to mention the dust from the tow vehicle billowing in. Further male bonding occurred at Mount Dare, as every third person there seemed to be an auto mechanic. We quickly decided that transport to Alice Springs was necessary, and so we contacted NRMA and arranged for a tilt-tray. It wasn’t easy doing this via satellite phone as they thought we were calling from Iridium’s headquarters in America, and therefore weren’t legitimately in need.

“It wasn’t easy doing this via satellite phone as they thought we were calling from Iridium’s headquarters in America”

After drumming up an address for Mount Dare, the tow truck turned up earlier than we expected the following morning. I was having a morning brew and watched it meander through the campsite. I recall thinking some poor bugger had broken down. When he stopped in front of our car, reality kicked back in. The driver, Jim, had a good sense of humour and we stopped along the way for photos, arriving in Alice around 4pm.

The car was taken to the local Alice Springs Land Rover dealer, who were confident they would have it going in no time. We sat around in Alice for a few days watching the washing dry. Twiddling our thumbs and then finally decided to rent a car for a week in order see the sights. It was difficult to find an appropriate vehicle as many of the hire companies don’t want to rent to the NRMA. That only gets them the corporate rate, anyway, we ended up with a dual-cab Hilux. We bought a tarp and cargo net to secure the luggage, and ransacked the Disco to grab essentials such as the tent and food.

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Upon our return to Alice a week or so later we discovered they still hadn’t fixed it. The technicians from Land Rover were scratching their heads, and we were getting stressed and worried. Our four-month vacation was dwindling down, day by day. The money that was meant to be spent on travelling was slowly being fed to Land Rover.

“Eventually it was proposed that the Disco’s main ECU had been “zapped”

Eventually it was proposed that the Disco’s main ECU had been “zapped”. Apparently there are six computers, controlling everything from the suspension to the transmission, interior, and engine. All of these computers talk to each other, identified by the vehicle’s VIN number, making it impossible to merely swap in a unit from another vehicle.

Naturally, Land Rover Australia did not have a spare, and quoted us a massive sum, and more disturbingly — six to eight weeks for one to be delivered from the UK.

A company in Adelaide (whom we subsequently put on speed dial) claimed that they could re-assign and repair a used computer, so we sent the old ECU to them. They copied the old data and sent it to a programmer in Perth to be “scripted” and loaded onto the replacement ECU. After another week or so of waiting, hoping luck would be on our side, this was found to be unsuccessful.

Backed into a corner, we decided to take the problem out of the hands of Land Rover, and arranged for all six computers, a diagnostics system, and a factory-trained technician to be flown in from Adelaide to do a major multi-organ transplant. In essence, we were planning to change out all of the electronics in one hit. Sourced from a vehicle involved in a rollover, but still running. Apart from the fact that one computer somehow missed the flight, this proved to be a successful fix. But this meant that our vehicle has now stolen the computer identity of the donor vehicle. Including its VIN number and subsequent mileage.

“After adding up the tow bills, repairs, parts, labour, accommodation and flights, the bill was over $12,000”

Three weeks after the computer failed at Dalhousie Springs, the Land Rover was finally drivable again. After adding up the tow bills, repairs, parts, labour, accommodation and flights, the bill was over $12,000. Luckily, after countless conversations with our insurance company, they ended up covering most of the bill. Finally, a stroke of good luck.

Unfortunately, we’ll never get the three weeks of what was supposed to be a relaxing vacation back.

The general consensus from those involved in the convoluted repair process was narrowed down to two scenarios. The first was that the car battery was flattened due to cold weather and old age. Then while initially attempting to jump-start it, the onboard computers somehow got zapped.

The other opinion is that the battery cells collapsed due to the heavily-corrugated roads and shorted out internally, destroying the battery, which spiked the computers. Subsequent inspection of the original ECUs showed burning and major voltage spike damage.

Whatever the cause, we have been assured that our problem was an incredibly rare occurrence. And that our vehicle, and Land Rovers in general, are definitely up to the challenge of four-wheel drive touring. I must say that after our computer debacle, we travelled a further 19,000 kilometres without so much as a backfire. Until the engine had a catastrophic failure and blew up six months later.



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