Autonomous and semiautonomous vehicles are making serious progress — and the mobile communications capabilities of those cars are also rapidly growing, perhaps too fast for their own security good — but they are going to run head on into a massive obstacle: human trust. It’s a big deal for someone to let go of the steering wheel and brake and trust a computer to make all of the right calls. (Heck, I am still trembling from when I taught our 16-year-old daughter to take over the wheel. And you’re asking me to trust the same operating system that crashes at least five times a week? Really?)
Two recent developments both increase trust and rip it apart. And off we go.
First, the good news with a little trust-boosting. On semiautonomous vehicles, one of the better features has been the car’s ability to keep itself inside the lane, with gentle steering and maneuvering assistance for the driver. But when it’s most needed, such as in a driving rainstorm or other weather conditions where visibility is limited and the driver might need help staying within the lines, the system typically fails. In short, if the driver can’t see the lane markings, the car’s cameras likely can’t either.
A group out of MIT has been trying to perfect a system that takes advantage of a fascinating perspective: ten feet below the road surface, where it captures images of “the subsurface combination of rocks, cavities, culvert pipes, utility infrastructure (cables, conduits, sewer lines), and reinforcing steel bar for concrete (rebar) creates a radar image uniquely different from any other part of the roadway,” according to a report in ExtremeTech.
There are a lot of things to like about this approach. First, the below-street-level data can be gathered once (via specially equipped vehicles), and it doesn’t need to be updated very often. Indeed, unless there’s construction to that area of the road — or an earthquake — there’s little reason to believe that those rocks and pipes will shift much.
This under-the-road map would theoretically allow the car to know precisely where it is — and, again in theory, precisely where the lane markers are supposed to be — and use that data to keep the car properly situated even when weather conditions are visually hiding those markers.
Second, the bad news, which effectively obliterates trust. That sad automotive news comes in via a series of Tweets from a stranded reporter for The Guardian named Kari Paul. She was driving an app-powered car rental when the car drove into a cell deadzone and itself died. “Apparently, in 45 minutes to an hour, a tow truck will come to move us three miles down the road where there is cell service so we can start our car. The future is dumb.”
Before we continue with Paul’s sad — but also really funny — tale of automotive woe, let’s pause a moment to consider that first part. Designers for an app powering a car decided that no cell signal means dead car. And it required that a gasoline-powered tow truck had to literally pull the car to an area with better cell service.
“Six hours, two tow trucks, and 20 calls to customer service later, apparently it was a software issue and the car needed to be rebooted before we could use it,” Paul tweeted. “Ok, because everyone is asking, this is @GIGCarShare, it still isn’t fixed and we are stranded three hours from home.”
What advice did this vendor have for our victims? “@GIGCarShare told us to sleep in our car on the side of the road and try again in the morning. We called a tow truck on our own and made it back to our Airbnb.” Words escape me on that last part.
Here’s my favorite line from this misadventure: “We were able to turn the car back on somehow but now we are afraid to turn it off because it may not start again and Gig told us we used our ‘allotted restarts’ of the car so we are on a literal endless road trip through California now.” Love the “literal endless road trip” quip, but I am more furious that a car app company that deliberately limited the number of times the car can be restarted. Do its developers own or drive motor vehicles? Did they somehow recruit coders from remote Amish villages? (Yes, I know that coding requires electricity. Cut me a little creative license here.)
This line was delightful as a topper: “fwiw. I am trying to contact them and the email to report a bug to @GIGCarShare is out of service.”
How does this change your trust for automated vehicles?
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