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.

Time warp Vauxhall

Time travel is a wonderful thing, you get a great view of time as you warp through the decades. The recent PetrolBlog big day out at

Many thanks to Major Gav and the PetrolBlog massive!
Many thanks to Major Gav and the PetrolBlog massive!

Vauxhall took me right back to the dawn of my motoring career, the sounds and smells of old engines are so amazingly evocative of the age before fuel injection and catalysts. And this got me thinking about just how far we have come, there have been some remarkable advances in areas such as performance and refinement, but also we seem to have lost something along the way.

 

 

 

 

 

Fienza HP (Droop Snoot)

My first drive of the day, and one that instantly transported me back to my first ever car; a Cavalier mk1. There is the smell of fuel you only get with carburettor cars, it’s raw, pure, and for people of my

Droop Snoot Firenza HP, fully restored and dressed to kill.
Droop Snoot Firenza HP, fully restored and dressed to kill.

generation it’s hugely evocative of an era when just getting your car to start was an achievement.

This car was a complete bare shell restoration which I covered for Practical Classics a few years ago, absolutely everything had to be rebuilt from the ground up and is

Firenza interior oozes class, note upside down rev counter and dog leg 'box.
Firenza interior oozes class, note upside down rev counter and dog leg ‘box.

another great example of the fantastic work that master mechanic Andrew Boddy at the Vauxhall Heritage Centre undertakes, and it is wonderful to see the car fully finished. It’s even more wonderful to drive it.

IMAG0598
Definite road presence!

Immediately the car feels direct and delightfully connected to the road, with non-assisted steering you can feel the road under the wheels, it feels alive. Even before I get out the car park I’m smiling like a lunatic, but once out in the country lanes this car delivers joy in great bucket loads. It’s by no means perfect, the 185 tyres seem skinny by modern standards and let go readily, but delightfully progressively making it deeply rewarding to drive. Would I take this car out just for the thrill of it? Well yes, but half the thrill would be wondering if it will make it back in one piece. This is an old car, there are a few clonks and rattles, but it all adds to the theatre of this marvellous car. And when I finally get out of the car and walk away, I just cant help looking back at it and enjoying the superb lines and proportions of this classic beauty. Surely that’s a sign they must have got something really very right.

IMAG0599
Elegant to the very end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Astra GTE MK1

Now this was a very interesting car, because my colleagues formed a notably different view of it to me. This highlights how personal car

The first small GTE for the marque.
The first small GTE for the marque.

tests actually are, our view of a car depends on our own preferences, past experiences, expectations and driving style. Every road test is as much a reflection of the tester as it is of the car.

This car was from a far simpler age, non-assisted steering giving lovely feedback through the spindly steering wheel, the view from the large windows is complemented by the low waist line so you can see everything on the road with no blind spots. But that’s where the fun stopped for me.

Mk1 interior boasts push button radio/cassette.
Mk1 interior boasts push button radio/cassette.

On the road the performance of the 1.8 8 valve engine is modest, maybe I’m spoilt by the thrust of modern performance cars but this one just didn’t sing for me, despite not having a rev limiter. The handling is poor by modern standards, but very much the norm for small hatches of that era, go into a corner fast and it understeers horribly, and if you have to back off for some reason mid corner the understeer immediately translates into annoying oversteer. Not that slowing down is that easy, the brakes really don’t do much, press the pedal hard and you really don’t slow down very much, press it harder and a wheel locks up, and you still don’t slow down very much.

But this is in itself important, it’s stable mates at that time had even more pedestrian engines which didn’t overly tax the brakes and handling. By taking the standard car and fitting a slightly more powerful engine they created a dynasty that leads directly to today’s Astra VXR.

Astra GTE MK2

With the MK2 they put a decent engine in, in fact that 16 valve 2.0 litre lump became a legend in racing circles and managed to dislodge

Mk2 a definite improvement.
Mk2 a definite improvement.

the Ford Pinto as the engine of choice in many club racing specials. In the GTE it’s pleasantly nippy and buzzes along with happy eagerness, the understeer is still there but less intrusive, and the lift off oversteer is much better. The brakes are still inadequate when ‘making good progress’, it

I love the digital dash!
I love the digital dash!

doesn’t really do emergency stops as such but at least it has the ability to slow down a bit, unlike its predecessor. It is quite a fun car, but still doesn’t quite work as a complete package.

 

 

 

 

VX220

Now, our illustrious leader Major Gav has actually owned two of these fine motorcars, so I was a bit worried when he joined me for a quick blast through the countryside, was I about to show myself up at the wheel of one of his favourite machines?

Special edition VX220. Great on track, painful on road. Still fun though.
Special edition VX220. Great on track, painful on road. Still fun though.

This particular version is the higher powered version, still based on the Lotus Elese but with the suspension and engine tuned by Opel. It seems to be set up for a race track, with very hard suspension that is not helped by the non standard ultra low profile tyres, it crashes and bangs over irregularities and pot holes are like a kick in the butt. It’s not nice.

But on smooth stretches it sticks to the road quite well and picks up pace briskly, the steering is direct and it changes direction swiftly. It’s quite a lot of fun and begs to be pushed harder, and somehow as it wears a Vauxhall badge and not a Lotus one it seems a bit more humble, I like that.

The last stop on the time machine was the present day, and here I had the opportunity to sample the descendants of these old cars and see exactly what their future held.

Mokka

Now, those who know me will be wondering what witchcraft managed

Mokka
Mokka

to get me into this sort of car. It’s not a fire breathing supercar or a go anywhere off road superhero, but putting my own preferences to one side I find that this sort of car is a very good idea. Its big inside, not too big on the outside, it goes and stops as it should and doesn’t use too much fuel. Normally that formula could be dangerously close to dull, so the splash of stainless steel and the nice blend of colours adds a touch of interest. In short it’s a perfectly good car. If you like that sort of thing.

Adam

This was a surprise. Again not my usual sort of test car, it has very little power and has no noticeable acceleration. Inside it is very roomy for two adults and two small kids at the back, an ideal car for a young

Striking Adam. Small children pointed and laughed, but that might just be my driving...
Striking Adam. Small children pointed and laughed, but that might just be my driving…

family, and I think that is a useful focus for this test. The car is painted to look sporty, it has stripes and graphics, even the headlining is a massive chequered flag, which initially seems at odds with its lack of performance and its super soft suspension, but I actually think it makes sense. If

Sporty? Not sure, but definitely fun.
Sporty? Not sure, but definitely fun.

you have just started a family you might not want to give up on the idea of a sports car, but even if you had one you would drive it gently with your new family installed, so this car works; it has a fun and sporty image yet delivers sensible family practicality.

 

 

 

 

Ampera

I drove this on a test track last year, but driving it through the heart of Luton was a far more realistic test, particularly accelerating between speedbumps up some of the towns steep hills. Now, you might expect me to slate electric cars, as I spend most of my time testing things like

This is what the future looks like, quite close to the road.
This is what the future looks like, quite close to the road.

Bentleys, Jaguars and Porsches, but actually I am a strong believer in electric cars, which are in many ways still in their infancy but will increasingly meet an exceed the abilities of internal combustion.

But this car should not be judged as an electric car, it should be judged as a normal small family car, and that is something it does very well, in fact in many ways it does it better than the Adam. It has reasonable performance, it’s quicker than many other conventional cars in this class and handles acceptably well too, although the low ground clearance at the front can be an issue on speedbumps. The interior is well equipped and spacious, not massive by any means but certainly big enough for most things.

Interesting, but a bit too much information.
Interesting, but a bit too much information.

In short this is a good car in it’s own right, and if I had the cash I would probably buy one.

So in summary, there are many things that are good such as ABS and crash safety, but there are many things that are a bit of a sad loss too. Being able to feel the road through the steering wheel in such a vivid way that you know how much traction the tyres have has completely gone, and whilst it may be true that you don’t need to read the road any more because the car stability control does that all for you it also means that drivers aren’t compelled to concentrate on the road like they used to. One result being that crashes keep getting more frequent, and now for the first time in decades road deaths are increasing.

 

 

My first car was a Cavalier, spindly A pillars and lots of feedback made it good to drive.
My first car was a Cavalier, spindly A pillars and lots of feedback made it good to drive.

The styling of cars is much more intense than it used to be, we are cocooned and protected with styling flourishes here there and everywhere. The window glass area is increasing, front screens are massive now, but the view out is getting more restrictive. A pillars are huge, mirrors are multifunction colossus, waistlines are getting higher, our actual view of the road is diminishing. In fact it is quite easy to loose sight of a car behind the mirror and A pillar whilst waiting at a T junction or roundabout on a modern car, by comparison a car of the ’70s with its spindly A pillar, tiny mirror mounted lower and not obstructing your line of sight forward, all makes for a far better view of the road, I felt much more a part of the traffic in an old-timer than in a new car.

Our connection to the road and to the traffic is reduced, our responsibility in terms of controlling the car and observing traffic have been eroded. But it is possible to design a car with the best of both old and new, spindly A pillars made out of stronger modern materials, mirrors replaced by cameras and a head up display, nicely assisted steering but with the soft compliant isolation removed etc. Driving both old and new on the same day brings it all into sharp focus.

And a final observation, not about cars but about our car industry in the UK. Currently UK automotive is doing very well indeed, the car sector is probably better than it has ever been. But there is a sobering reminder of how things can change for the worse in the Vauxhal

Map made in the eighties showing the huge Luton plant, including 'planned extension'.
Map made in the eighties showing the huge Luton plant, including ‘planned extension’.

museum, there is a map of the site from the early ’80s, it shows the massive scale of the sprawling complex, with roads and railways running through the site. Some areas are marked up for planned expansion, there are research and development facilities, prototype workshops, a styling studio as well as a myriad of huge production buildings. Thousands of people worked there, the streets around the plant housed thousands of families dependent on the thriving factory, for every job at the plant it is reckoned that about 5 further jobs were supported in support activities such as parts suppliers, transport drivers, sales staff and even the local shops and restaurants. The whole town fed this plant, and the plant fed the whole town.

And it’s all gone. Only a skeleton crew remain, some marketing people and a few support activities, even the fantastic array of cars in the heritage centre are restored and maintained by just one bloke. The streets reflect this change, there is not so much money about round there at the moment.

And this is not a case of me dreaming of a bygone industry, I’m not lamenting the passing of steam engines of horse drawn ploughs, no I’m cross because all those jobs went somewhere else. Vauxhall make more cars now than they did back then, the demand for there product is there, production is marching on, research and development is busier than ever, the jobs exist, but not here.

Over a hundred years of history at the Vauxhall Heritage Center.
Over a hundred years of history at the Vauxhall Heritage Center.

I’ve driven some very impressive cars here today, and I thank Vauxhall very much for the opportunity, but as I drive away through old streets, past the large retail site that has been built on part of the old factory, I feel a bit sad that all those jobs have gone. And with that loss the skills have gone, the real heritage of a hundred years of Vauxhalls, the stories, the effort, the stress of pushing out a new model, the dramas, all become fading memories.

The next big thing.

People often ask me what the future of motoring holds, after all my day job is working with car companies to develop prototypes of the cars of the future. But the long term plans of the big car companies is only part of this story.

It’s true they try to guess the future, often a new car design will be in production for seven years with a facelift half way through, and it takes between three and five years to do all the engineering so all in all a totally new model may still be going strong a decade after the initial plan was agreed. And when you are investing billions in factories and engineering facilities you need to feel that your guesses will be fairly close to what the future will actually hold.
So many experts are consulted; economists, engineers, scientists, sociologists and pundits all make contributions in one way or another, and gradually a fuzzy picture of the future coalesces.
But times are changing.

Oil supply is uncertain, it’s not so much that it’s running out, more that politics and economics mean that prices will carry on going up and the reliability of supply is less certain than ten years ago. And when a critical factor like oil becomes iffy then long term plans become impossible to make, this means that it is far safer to plan for alternative fuels, and electric drives seem relatively easy to plan for (see a previous post). But even the role of alternatives is not clear cut, there is renewed interest in making fuel by reversing the combustion process with electricity. Petrol and diesel burn and turn mostly into water and carbon dioxide whilst releasing energy, so by combining water and carbon dioxide and putting loads of energy back in you get fuel. So depending on where the electricity comes from this has the potential to be carbon neutral and also has the benefit that the car industry doesn’t have to invent new engines. This could be the next big thing, really very big. Unless it’s easier to plan for electric drives or some other technology, in which case this will get too little investment and never get anywhere.
Fuel is a hugely contentious issue these days, both for its cost and its environmental effect.
Have you ever seen people complaining that they don’t get the claimed fuel economy from their car? The problem is drivers are hugely inconsistent, I am famed for squeezing higher fuel economy figures from almost any car, but a colleague of mine usually manages to use twice as much fuel as me on the same journey! And it’s not just MPG, its how many litres of fuel you have to pay for each month, and part of that is what route you choose and traffic flow.
But there are some bigger issues that will influence the future, did you know that road deaths in the UK have just started going up? About two thousand people are killed on the UK roads every year, that is an astonishing statistic, how the hell can we live with this situation? Almost all of these are caused by driver error.
These problems are contributing to the drive towards fully autonomous cars, although the main drive is the fact that most drivers hate driving and would rather be on the internet or chatting to friends, so having a robot chauffeur is a real selling point. We have already seen self parking cars gain popularity, and Volvo were the first to introduce collision avoidance where the car will do an emergency stop if it gets worried. All the car companies I know of are working on autonomous cars, they are still many years off, but within a decade they will be widely available.
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.
But in the shorter term there is still a lot of work going on refining existing technologies.
You may have noticed that engines are getting smaller again, coupled with much higher boost levels, such as the lovely little Ford three cylinder unit or the sprightly VW Tsi. This trend is set to continue over the next ten years at least, with a greater presence of electric hybrid drives to ensure the engine is used only at its best efficiency.
But something is coming that might make these plans irrelevant.

And it’s the weather.
People have noticed that the weather is becoming increasingly inconvenient. The climate is warming up, in the UK this means that crops are getting ruined year after year. I’m fairly close to the farming community and a startling thing is that most farmers I’ve spoken to can’t remember when they last had two consecutive good years. This year our food prices will go up, although to be fair we have very cheap food in the UK to start with, and there may be shortages of certain types of food. Initially grains will be diverted from animal feed stocks to feeding us directly,, driving up animal feed and thus meat prices will be the first to go up. This will drive inflation up and this in turn worries politicians, and when politicians get worried they usually pass some badly thought out laws.
But it’s not just food, floods have caused huge damage and disruption costing the country a fortune.
You can see where this is going can’t you? Yes it’s our old foe climate change, for decades people have been warning that there was a problem, and for over a decade the car industry has taken this very seriously but the problem has always been that the message we’ve been receiving has been confused and complex, making it impossible to know who to believe and so what to plan for. This is partly because the climate is a hugely complex thing, and our understanding of it is still in it’s infancy, what’s shocking is the lack of funding for this science, which takes us back to politicians.

Politicians react to popular opinion, more so near an election. So no matter what the real truth of the matter is (how about massive investment and incentives for zero carbon drives and proper funding for climate research? No, ok then spend the money on nuclear weapons we will never use.) politicians now have a population with ridiculously expensive fuel, flooded homes and food shortages. The people want this mess sorted out, so the standard scenario is that in this situation politicians choose someone to blame and pass laws to restrict the ‘bad thing’ that is the alleged cause of the problem.

Car companies are a bit worried about this situation, not knowing what laws will be passed on emissions or what taxes will be applied to fuel and different types of car means that long term plans are near impossible. Obviously 6.0 litre V8s will get hammered, but what about a 2.0 or a 1.5 litre turbo unit? If the top of your current range has a 3.0 V6, what should you plan to be using in ten years time? Maybe even a sub one litre engine will still get hammered?
And what about the cars due for release in 2013, many years of work and many millions, sometimes over a billion, have gone into getting each one into production. They simply have to be in production for their intended production life span or the company may suffer serious damage, and for very high volume producers like Ford or VW loosing the market on a new car because it gets taxed to oblivion or fails new emissions limits could bring it to its knees. This is serious stuff.

But more serious is the very real change in our climate, if greenhouse gasses are the problem then we have to engineer a technical way of ripping it out of the atmosphere in astonishing volumes, after all we’ve been pumping tons of shit into the air for hundreds of years and there is one hell of a lot of it up there now. And it’s not just CO2, Methane is far worse and a lot of that comes from our passion for meat, there are many factors and it all needs sorting out.

If the politics dictate that petrol and diesel suddenly face being taxed to death, or even banned, then all of a sudden getting funding for reformed fuel or electric drives will become a lot easier, because investors can see the benefit.
But time is running out, and what we need is some sort of certainty so long term plans can be made and investments made. Tell the car industry that cars in ten years time will have to be all electric and we know what we have to work with, sure it will be hard but it will get done. If its gas or reformed fuel or whatever, just let us know.

So what’s the next big thing? Could be reformed petrol, could be hydrogen, could be electric, could even be banning cars and everyone working from home (ok, not that). One thing that I have seen across the board is that there is an increased focus on putting more fun into motoring, there are some fabulous drivers cars in the pipeline. Longer term there are loads of fascinating technologies in their infancy that could change our lives fundamentally, some are being funded and some are just starting out. But in all honestly it all depends on politics, and one thing no one can predict is politicians.

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.