Automation and the Progress of the Self-Driving Automobile

Latest News Stories Pit Google Against the Conventional Automakers with Google Demonstrating Driverless Cars

By Paul Studebaker

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 Anyone who enjoys automation has to be entertained by the progress of the self-driving car. The latest news stories pit Google against the conventional automakers, with Google demonstrating driverless cars — no steering wheel or other driver controls — and conventional carmakers taking a piecewise, incremental approach with technologies such as lane departure warning, interval controls and automatic emergency braking. Automakers say the whole "personal automobile” concept requires a vehicle owner/operator, while Google is suggesting that cars can become more of a service or utility provided by a company that's ultimately responsible for rider safety.

Four drivers in the 11 fatal accidents were impaired by drugs or alcohol…seven of the 13 crash victims were unbelted.

 Google's excellent safety record and data-intensive, high-technology approach (the cars only work in areas where Google has programmed them with maps that detail the route down to curb locations and heights) has the company confident that it can make driverless cars safe enough for company owners to accept total responsibility.

It's not because the automation is totally reliable — of course, it isn't. It's because people are pretty much totally unreliable. Then they sue. You'd think the automakers would jump at the chance to eliminate drivers. From the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire debacle to today's GM ignition switch fiasco, automakers' liabilities have often been the largest when they've been blamed for defects that only turn lethal when combined with driver negligence, inattention or stupidity.

For example, from the size of the recall itself and the publicity about it, you might think the 11 fatalities attributed to faulty GM ignition switches were due to ignition switch failures. But we know that automobile engines can lose power or stop running at any time for any number of reasons, and cars are designed to be safely turned and stopped with the engines off.

Car & Driver magazine tested a 185,000-mile Saturn Ion with a torque sensor on the wheel and pressure sensor on the brake pedal. They measured steering and braking efforts with the engine on and off, and concluded that any driver with "presence of mind” should be able to stop the car safely or shift it to neutral and restart it.

The magazine wrote that four of the drivers involved in the 11 fatal accidents linked to faulty GM switches were reportedly impaired by drugs or alcohol. A witness observed that another driver, who had a history of epilepsy, was slumped over the wheel immediately before the collision. Seven of the 13 crash victims were unbelted.

We saw similar driver interactions in the Ford Explorer/Firestone tire situation, where Ford specified tires that were not as strong as they could have been and a relatively low tire pressure to reduce the probability of rollover accidents. When drivers ran the SUVs fast on hot days with an under-inflated tire, it might blow out. Car & Driver simulated that situation and found the Explorer as easy to bring to the shoulder as any similar vehicle with a sudden flat.

Audi's contribution to its cars sudden, unintended acceleration was traced to statistically anomalous pedal positioning and driver error. Toyota's came down to the possibility of stacked floor mats and driver error. Car & Driver floored the throttles on several Toyota products and found them easy to stop by using the brakes to overcome the engine, whether or not the driver shut the ignition off first.

"A car that loses power while being driven can be dangerous, and General Motors unquestionably failed its customers by building cars for years with ignition switches that didn't meet the company's own specifications,” the magazine wrote. "Yet the dominant narrative—that the cars were shutting down, causing them to become uncontrollable and preventing airbags from deploying—doesn't hold up. The truth is most cars have an Achilles' heel. Sometimes two, when you factor in the driver.”

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  • This is certainly an appropriate topic to write to you about. Anytime I see your name, I always have fond memories of my first automobile, a 1947 Studebaker Champion. Loved that car. Wish I had've kept it. Any family connection with that former company? Please don't think from the comments below that I am an anti-technologist. I am not. My credentials: PhD in Systems Engineering, Process Automation Hall of Fame (2002), long-time consultant and ISA instructor. The thought of driverless vehicles scares the fool out of me, for reasons not usually mentioned in articles extolling the virtues of this technology. Any form of vehicular automation (automatic air bags, driver warning systems, etc.) up to, but NOT including hands off, no-human-involvement required, is great and quite acceptable. But that last step is not. Here is my thinking. First and foremost is the susceptibility to hacking. Right now that is not a problem because number of automated vehicles on the road is currently not enough to attract hackers attention. Most hacking is done for monetary advantage. I do not think this will be the case with autonomous vehicles. What I do foresee is that some bright college, or even high-school, kids will figure out how to break into the system. (Read the current issue of "Time" magazine for an example.) Then the motivation is fun and games. Consider the following scenarios. "Ooh. Wouldn't it be fun to make all of these cars crash into each other." "What. That teacher gave me an F on that paper. Wait until she is driving home this afternoon and goes over that overpass." "That guy is out with my girl-friend. I'll fix him." "Hey, wouldn't it be fun for some of us Texas Aggies to mess up the Univ of Texas' homecoming parade?", or "Wouldn't it be fun to have some car crash into the team bus on the way to its big game?" It would only take one kid to figure out how to break into the system, the right away many kids would know how. Can Google, or the vehicle manufacturers prevent this. Apparently not. The best IT brains couldn't prevent Target, Neiman-Marcus, and ... and... from being infiltrated. If it's out there, someone will figure out a way around it. My second thought is what can the regulatory agencies do about this. Apparently nothing. They (politicians and political appointees) don't have a clue about the technology involved. Congress mandated in 2004 that the NTSA require all vehicles to have rear view cameras by 2009. Due to strenuous objection by the automobile manufacturers, this is only now slowly coming about. My third thought is the lack of standards. In the process industries, we have standards for communications technology, safety systems, etc., etc. But if the automotive industry tried to agree on standards (thereby fulfilling the promise that "vehicles will be able to talk with each other"), then the regulatory agencies will have a field day. "You can't do that. That is collusion!" My fourth thought concerns liability. Suppose to driverless automobiles are in an accident. Whose fault was it. The insurance companies, and their lawyers, collecting big legal fees, either directly from the owners, or from the insurance companies who will in turn, or previously, made it up in escalated insurance rates. My last thought is that this whole idea of autonomous vehicles is being driven by the profit-centered automobile industry and by Google, which is equally profit motivated. What we will see, or already are beginning to see, is an "arms race" to see which manufacturer can offer the most advance automation features. Public safety be damned - that's only something that we tout in our advertising blurbs. I say that our regulatory agencies should say "No" to this whole idea right now, before it is too late. "No vehicles which do not require constant and vigilant driver attention may be sold for, imported for, nor operated on, public roadways under our jurisdiction." Thanks, Paul, for reading this overly-long e-mail, and letting me get these thoughts off my chest. Best regards, Harold Wade

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  • On the Studebaker connection -- the car-makers and I are descended from the same set of three brothers who immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1736. Two were blacksmiths who founded the wagon company that became the car company, the third headed up my lineage.

    That did not prevent us from owning and driving Studebakers -- the whole family drove them exclusively until about 1980, and my siblings still have three -- a 1953 coupe and 1964 Avanti that were my father's, and a 1963 1/2-ton pickup that was in the California highway maintenance fleet. I can fix anything on a 1953 or newer Stude.

    Your 1947 Champion was a bit before my time, but I'm sure I've seen one like it at one of the Studebaker Drivers Club meets.

    Thanks for writing,

    Paul

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  • I read your article “We’re still Human” with interest. I disagree with much of it. I think you miss the issues in most of your examples. Let’s start with your Audi example. I owned an Audi 5000 just before the 60 minutes hatchett job came out. Yet,in spite of 60 minutes creating a false condition the basis of the story was correct. The 5000 was plagued with numerous electrical problems. My particular car went to arbitration over these issues with Audi buying the car back over electrical issues. You said the 5000 issues were traced to pedal positioning. And yes, Audi did attribute the acceleration issue originally to Americans not knowing how to drive a high performance cars that can be heel and toed. They said they would reposition the pedals. In other words, they said Americans didn’t know how to drive. What you fail to understand is that Audi did secretly recall more than 25000 vehicles for the idle stabilizer valves creating a high idle condition. These cars weren’t properly shielded. Technology was in semi failure mode. This situation just showed German arrogance and lying at its finest and the public responded in kind. Now, Toyota. Toyota said the problem was attributable to mats. Well Toyota had a problem with their computer and their drive by wire systems. One of the problems was the Tyota computer didn’t record all errors or problems. As an example, my wife had a Lexus RX350 that would cut off at a light only if the gas tank had more than ¾ of a tank of gas and you drove more than ten minutes. The Lexus dealer originally said they couldn’t find a problem. I detailed to them exactly when it occurred. They never could figure out the fault but they could duplicate it. The told me it was an anomaly and replace the entire fuel system. I detailed this to a friend. He said his father had the same problem with a LS400. They terminated his lease and put him in another car ( they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with it.) It wasn’t the mats. Again a public relations debacle because the company is lying. The Ford/Firestone debacle. I was told by a number of people in the auto industry that Ford had a problem with the suspension design and wear on Explorer tires long before people mentioned rollovers. Once again you mention “Car and Driver” magazine (an enthusiast magazine that depends entirely on auto industry advertising as a definitive authority on probability). And you mention running on under inflated tires as a problem. Well if you look at the Ford inflation specifications it told them to underinflate the tires. The reason for this was to hide the suspension issues. The Saturn and “Car and Driver”. Have you ever tried to steer a car that has power steering and power brakes and stop it if you are going at a higher rate of speed. I have. I’m 6’4” and the size of an NFL football player. I can with extreme presence of mind. Do you think a very small person or an elderly one can. Not on your life. And now you are telling me that I should trust any computer company (I used to work for one of the majors) to make a product that has to run for years in all kinds of weather and be reliable. It seems to me these companies can’t even make software coupled with hardware that runs for years in a controlled environment without freaking out. The automakers should go slow in introducing new technology. They have certainly been burned enough. Dan Williams Trais Marketing dwilliams@traismarketing.com

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  • Dan,

    I really appreciate your first-person perspective on these issues, and agree that complexity, especially of electronics, has become the major weakness of modern cars. I have my own stories of sudden unintended acceleration (BMW), floor mat acceleration (Honda), stalling (Honda, Jaguar) and electric gremlins (everything).

    My point is just that people remain the biggest problem. Is it unreasonable to expect a driver to keep air in decent tires, or to deal with the cause of a stall before another one kills them, or to know that you only get about three powered steps on the brake pedal if the engine's not running? I guess so, though they've been common sense since before I got my license in 1972, and long before cars got computers.

    Thanks for writing,

    Paul

    p.s. Your comments about "Car and Driver" sound like you've never read it...if not, you might have a look. In my opinion, it's very well written and not perceptibly subservient to automakers.

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  • Paul:

    Thanks for responding.

    Actually, I used to be an ardent reader of C&D. I think they are subservient to the auto companies.

    And I do believe that people are the biggest problem, but your article appeared to defend the auto companies and Google. My point is I wouldn’t put my trust completely in electronics because I’ve worked in that industry. I think the auto companies are right to gradually introduce technology. I think much of it is unproven until after its been through a few real severe winters and summers. Dan Williams Trais Marketing dwilliams@traismarketing.com

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