Autonomous Zombies

Here is an interesting observation: most drivers don’t want to be there.

Unlike enthusiasts, such as myself, who really get a deep enjoyment and fulfilment from driving, in the mass market most car owners don’t actually like driving at all, it’s just become a necessity of modern life. That’s why so many of them don’t pay attention and would rather chat on the phone, listen to the radio or just stare into the distance like a slack jawed zombie.

Cars are a very strange phenomenon in that respect, where else would you find a large, heavy and complex piece of machinery that is bought and operated by almost everyone regardless of whether they are interested in that machine or not? It wouldn’t happen with lathes, welding kit or submarines, but with cars we just accept it. In fact the buying profile of cars is more like toasters or kettles, everyone thinks they need one but has not interest in how to work them properly.

Danger being recognized
Danger being recognised

And because of the non-professional nature of the vast majority of car owners, technology is being developed to meet their needs. That is; making the car make most of the decisions. We are entering the beginning of a time when cars become more autonomous, adaptive cruise control will adjust the car speed to the traffic conditions, lane assist can nudge the steering to stop you drifting off your chosen path, we even have auto parking systems. It is a logical step to bring all these ideas together and link them to the sat nav to create fully autonomous cars, Google are investing heavily in this idea. Once the systems become common there will be increasing pressure to ban manual driving, after all an autonomous car doesn’t get road rage, doesn’t speed, can see through fog, never gets distracted and should never crash. All those computer systems running all those programs written by thousands of different people at different times in different places and controlling your car….

Autonomous cars have the potential to reduce journey times, slash road deaths and injuries, reduce insurance costs, reduce financial losses, and reduce emissions. Manufacturers also benefit from a reduction in warranty costs caused by customers abusing their cars. And intriguingly once a car becomes autonomous the interior design focus changes dramatically towards being an entertainment or business centre, windows become less important, seats facing forward is no longer mandatory, just imagine the possibilities.

Fully autonomous cars are now being trialled, you just get in, tell it where to go and it drives you there. To many this is automotive heaven, just like having a chauffeur, and takes the irritating burden of ‘having to do some driving’ out of a journey completely. Plus there are safety advantages which make a very compelling argument, the fact is that nearly all accidents are caused by the driver doing something really dumb, so by taking the driver out of the system lives would be saved. And that argument alone is powerful enough to kill the ‘drivers car’ stone dead, no arguments, it is simply infeasible to argue that autonomous cars should not be compulsory just because we want to have a little bit of fun.

But to enthusiasts this is automotive hell, no control, no involvement, no enjoyment, nothing.

And it also take a lot of skill and judgement away too, what if I want to drive on the left of my lane to get a good view past the truck I am about to overtake? Will the lane control system let me? What if I need to gently nudge my driveway gate open because its blown shut? Will the collision avoidance system let me?

And this brings me to a very important point; cars are so reliable these days that people are totally unable to cope with a simple problem; I would have thought that if the pedal stays down then either put your toe under it and pull it up or drop it in neutral, park up and switch off. Easy, but most people have lost the ability to cope with any sort of problem, and that is scary.

I say scary because we depend more and more on technology, cars, electricity supply, computers, the internet, mobile phones, the list goes on. And for the most part the technology serves us amazingly well, but like all things it can fail.

I remember in the 70’s there were power cuts, no problem; the lights went out so we lit candles, life goes on. We communicated by actually talking to people, we were entertained by actually doing things, we worked by going out and making physical things.

But now, oh dear, if the power fails we seem to be doomed to sitting in a freezing dark house unable to phone a friend or do any work on the computer. ‘Doomed I say, doomed, captain’ (although that phrase probably wont mean a thing to younger readers).

Now don’t get me wrong, I am a great fan of technology. As an engineer I work on car technology that won’t see the glowing lights of a showroom for maybe seven years, as a writer I would be lost without the word processor and its fantastic ability to correct my abysmal spelling. Oh yes indeedey I just cant get enough of the techy stuff.

What I am scared of is the way people are loosing the ability to do things for themselves. To even bother trying to solve problems seems to great a challenge, the mind is being numbed and switched off, its like intentionally loosing the ability to walk just because you can afford a wheel chair.

The first thought when a problem hits now seems to be ‘who should I call about this problem’, and not what it should be ‘what can I do to solve this problem’.

People have to be more proactive, just like we used to be, and much less reactive and just plain pathetic.

But what drives technological development is consumer demand, so if we want cars to be ‘drivers cars’, totally under our command, then we have to make our voice heard. Not only that but the voice must have a strong and sound argument, and it has to be heard right now.

Now modern cars are introducing collision avoidance, lane control and other complex systems which all have to work in harmony with all the other systems in all the infinite combinations of circumstance.

The complexity is so great that I believe it is now impossible to accurately asses how such a car will react in all conditions. Complexity hides secrets, usually unintentional.

This is true not only for cars, but in many of the systems we rely on today which are also hugely complex and have chunks of third party software in the control system, from automatic number plate recognition and speeding fines, military automatic targeting and smart weapons, to the DNA database and even the way we use the internet.

The potential for technology to assist is immense, but it has to be understood that we have now lost control of every detail. So how far do we let the machines dictate to us, and how much override can we allow to fallible humans? It is one of the most important debates we should be having today.

The answer to this will dictate the future of society and quite possibly our fate as a species.

Ralph Hosier is a Chartered Engineer with over 25 years in the cutting edge of vehicle development and research. He has written several automotive books and many articles. He also teaches engineering at the UK forces motorsport charity Mission Motorsport.

For engineering enquiries, project advice or media requests please email on hello@rhel.co.uk and look at the company website www.rhel.co.uk for more details.

Computer crash

When I was little I remember listening to old people talking about a time when there where no cars, the feeling of excitement and wonder when they saw their firs one, a feeling mixed with a little fear as the mechanical marvel seemed to take over every aspect of life. Where once they played in the road now the car was king, and a ruthless one at that. Communities divided by a constant steam of deadly traffic.
Of course today we take the car for granted. Many have moved away from the workers slums into suburbia and now rely on the car to support this freedom.

ASL, DSC and other stability control systems allow even the clumsiest driver to enjoy supercar power in reletive safety. Technology can be amazing.

We teach our children ‘road sense’ so they can cross the road safely. Most drivers are not deadly speed demons (although in town most people still speed, 40 in a 30 zone IS deadly). Society adjusts and we move on.
Now it seems that its my turn to sound old because I remember a time when there were no PCs.
I remember the excitement of my first Sinclair ZX80, the awe of seeing the colour ZX Spectrum.
But now I feel the fear.
Now don’t get me wrong here, I am a great believer in the usefulness of computers, I have a degree in computer systems engineering, I have made a career out of devising and tweaking computer control systems for cars.
The performance of this Lamborghini is only possible because of the massed computer systems doing highly complex things to make the engine, gearbox, suspension and brakes work to perfection.

But still, now I feel the fear.
When I was studying to become and engineer, every step of the way I was told of the importance of doing things properly. With a large computer program one has to exactly and correctly specify what it should do in every detail. One must also specify what it must not do! Once the program is written then it must be tested against this specification and every possible combination of circumstances must be tested. That way there are no ‘bugs’ and unexpected effects.
But life is not like that.
The software (and also hardware now) on almost everything is so complex that it requires a computer program just to be able to test it.
No one programmer can do the whole thing, its just too big, so we have teams. So now we have programs to help the teams work together without bits getting left out and prevent miss interpretations etc.
But we live in a capitalist society. Its not just the engineers that create products, its corporations. Many individuals with their own beliefs on how things should be done dictating the boundaries and detail of what the engineer can do but without a sound understanding of the technicalities.
Money has too be made (exceptions include Linux (three cheers)) and so whole chunks of code from other programs are grafted in to new programs, the people producing this new program may not know the details of how this chunk was written and all its effects. Sometimes there may be a ‘surprise’ effect caused by the interaction of this chunk with the rest of the program, other chunks grafted in or indeed other programs running on the same machine or network.
Testing takes time and money and delays the launch date. Some things just cant be tested completely due to their nature, for example if your program predicts the weather then how do you test every possible combination of weather across the whole world and still meet the deadlines.
The Jaguar CX-75 uses complex computers to manage a highly tuned engine plus high power electric motors to bring stunning performance with minimal fuel use, a fantastic use of technology.

Also the hardware too is so complex that it is not commercially viable to test everything, or indeed possible. With several million transistors on a single chip is never going to get tested for the effects of every combination of individual transistor failures.
So that’s where we are today. Our systems are only partially tested and often a patchwork of other peoples work all stuck together with hope and optimism. Or indeed sometimes cynicism.
Many consumer products are made by inexperienced teams and pushed out by unscrupulous corporations (particularly in countries where software standards are not enforced) and are largely unproven.
Many of us have experienced the result of this growing problem, such as the PC just locking up when you try a new program or simply getting slower and slower as time goes by. These bug and software faults are so common that many people think it is normal for computers to behave like this. For instance the PC I am writing this on is twelve years old, it still does everything it was designed to and since running Linux it hasn’t slowed right down or ground to a halt, yet still most people accept that computers need replacing every other year and expect it to slow down over time. It must be realised that it doesn’t have to be this way, technically, but commercial pressures will continue to make the problem worse and this will be compounded as more and more code is piled on to bring use ever more features.
Complexity is a big problem and is the subject of many a professors career, things are getting more and more complex and there is no proper engineering control on it.
Now, the reason that I am writing this is not just to have a good whinge about my computer crashing or indeed to complain about commercial forces ruining good engineering. Those things make me angry, but they are not the cause of my fear.
The fear stems from how we are using these systems as a society, how we are relying on the unreliable.
Computer systems are now increasingly being used as part of the law enforcement system, finance control, travel systems and even food production
Speed cameras always cause a good argument so I will stir thing up a bit further. Now I know very well that excessive speed increases danger of injury and general twisting of machinery and putting a speed camera outside a school is no bad thing.
The issue for me comes from the fact that the picture generates an automatic fine for a person. There is no human judgement in the loop, bang, guilty until proven innocent. And that’s wrong.
A friend of mine suffered from a theft from his car, not the usual sort of theft, the number plates were stolen. It turns out that persons of criminal persuasion are stealing a car then cruising round till they find an identical type of car and putting those plate on theirs. Then they can generate speeding fines and parking tickets with impunity and even commit serious crime knowing full well that the system will point the finger at some one else. It even cause the police to waste time with the wrong chap, keeping the heat off the criminals long enough for them to make their escape.
Guilty until proven innocent, trial by computer, not good, not very British.
Maybe soon we will all have ID cards. This means that criminals only need to forge one item instead of a string off items as at present, thus making their life easier. The systems used for security are simply to complex to be testable, and driven down on price so the quality is marginal. Its simply not reliable.
If you want quality you have to pay for it because quality systems take more time to engineer and more time to test and it all costs money.
We are entering the beginning of a time when cars become more autonomous, adaptive cruise control will adjust the car speed to the traffic conditions, lane assist can nudge the steering to stop you drifting off your chosen path, we even have auto parking systems. It is a logical step to bring all these ideas together and link them to the sat nav to create fully autonomous cars, Google are investing heavily in this idea. Once the systems become common there will be increasing pressure to ban manual driving, after all an autonomous car doesn’t get road rage, doesn’t speed, can see through fog, never gets distracted and should never crash. All those computer systems running all those programs written by thousands of different people at different times in different places and controlling your car….
In the near future there will be an attempt to make remote vehicle arrestors mandatory on all new cars. This system uses ABS systems that have full authority breaking and engine management systems to bring a car to a halt using a radio command that only police will have. In a simplistic world this is great, you report your car stolen and the police can bring it to a halt when the conditions are safe. No more getaway cars. Well, unless criminals use older cars, but that loophole is easily solved by making classic cars illegal and crushing them all!
The problems include accidental stopping of the car (you cant prove the software completely due to its complexity and you cant prove the hardware completely because you cant test every failure and every type of possible radio interference etc), incorrect use by the police or other agencies, vehicle being stopped by criminals equipped with illicit stopping systems for the purpose of car jacking. Finally there is always a way to bypass the system, always a loop hole, a bug, a back door or an ‘unintentional feature’.
I was on a train in Germany last year which suddenly stopped in the middle of no where without warning, brakes full on. Luckily I had finished my coffee so the cup was empty when it slid of the table. The cause of this potentially dangerous emergency stop was a software error in the very system that is supposed to protect the train from crashes.
Our corporate based society does not allow for well written systems to be made as profitably as the quickly written ones.
This is a real problem and is getting worse as more systems are used.
In my life I rely on a mobile phone, I rely on my car, my computer, email, bank direct debits, automatic payments, alarm clock, microwave, fridge, washing machine, traffic lights etc. The power feeding my home is controlled by systems all linked together in a network. The amount of chlorine in the water I drink is monitored electronically. Aeroplanes are flown expertly by computers over my head, the air traffic is controlled by other computers.
I use my switch card to pay for car tax, the little computer in the post office reads my details and talks to one of many networked computers at the bank, the figure in my account file is reduced and a message sent to the post office bank computer to tell it to increase the number in its account. Then a message is sent to a computer at DVLA and it changes the value of a variable in a file so that when another program does its daily check of who has tax it will not automatically send a message to another computer to send me a fine and automatically turn me into a criminal. I never see these computers and they never see me. But they can bankrupt me accidentally or send me to jail.
These systems are not designed completely by engineers, the specifications and design constraints are created by politicians and computer sales executives who simply don’t understand.
When I was a child, I was proud to be British, a country that believed in tolerance, understanding and fair play. I was proud of my country.
Now I am scared of my country and the automatic systems that rule my life.
My bank local branch has just got rid of all its cashiers, you have to use the machines now. Signatures have been replaced with PINs.
Make no mistake, these systems give us great ability as a society and as in individual. The principles of the systems are very good, it’s often empowering and can change lives for the better. Even this blog site gives me a platform to express my beliefs and concerns in a way that was impossible a generation ago. I am a great believer in technology.
But as far as I can see if we are to rely on systems then they must be reliable.
Also, there must always be a human in the loop when ever civil liberty is at stake.
And finally, there must always be a manual back up for those odd days when thing don’t quite work the way they should.