August 14, 2012

Rational and Irrational Fears of a “Robotic” Future

by Samuel Yules and Chris Rezendes

Autonomous vehicles – the outer edge of connected cars – is a fitting blog topic because it’s where Laura Billingsley and Mike Corrozzo left off in their recent connected vehicle discussions. This post aims to go beyond the recent focus on comfort and entertainment connectivity to remind us of the many current and more important applications of connectivity in automobiles and other vehicle markets that drivers need to begin to value.

Autonomy in vehicles – semi and full – is an advanced manifestation of connected devices that enable silicon-carbon integration (SCI), a term we use at INEX Advisors. SCI is accomplished when an interactive relationship exists between silicon technology (robotic and autonomous system) and carbon (humans), beyond smart phones. Current examples of SCI reach far and wide and most cars on our roads today.

Take Anti-Locking Braking Systems (ABS) for example. When ABS technology was deployed, computers took over braking from the driver. Now, when a driver hits the brake pedal, this constant pressure is translated into an electronic signal that rapidly pulses the brakes against the spinning wheels slowing down a car significantly faster than a driver could while avoiding brake lockage.

And we were uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable with the way that the brakes gave feedback.  Uncomfortable with the way that we were NOT in control of our cars – even as ABS insured that we would not lose control due to our natural reaction to lock up our brakes in a number of emergency response scenarios.  Quite a paradox, no?  It took a fair amount of education and training, and sophisticated engineering to get the technology and the consumers to converge on ABS.

Or was it the insurance companies?

The list of current autonomous – semi or full – SCI technology embedded in passenger cars goes on. Traction control automatically monitors wheel spin and slippage and alters power to slipping and non-slipping wheels to balance out engine usage so the vehicle avoids skidding. Advanced steering systems sense under or oversteer and modulate the differential between the wheel in the driver’s hand and the articulation of the wheel at the end of the axle on the ground.

Dozens of other connected devices enabling semi or fully autonomous systems already exist in our cars – electronic fuel injection, electronically controlled transmissions, airbags and more.  And while the entertainment systems in cars are becoming more automated (with voice activation and hands-free commands) so too are the “hidden” systems within the car.

The autonomous developments have focused largely on narrowly defined sense, monitor, and control feedback loops. Such as ABS:  the driver pushes the brakes, and the braking system is activated, there are no two ways about it, there are no other inputs for the braking system. Because of the simplicity here, technology has already been able to automate this system.

And now, we are offered – confronted perhaps – with the possibility that we can further improve performance of systems such as braking with technologies that enable more autonomy. But that autonomy requires that those “closed loops” open up and in that “opening up” brings with it more random inputs, less controlled scenarios, and some fear.

And this is the big challenge through which autonomous vehicles need to navigate. Everything on the roadway is a potential obstacle for a car. Crowded streets busied with “random” events such as pedestrian crossings, children on bikes, and other vehicles driven by teenagers who may be texting or listening to loud music. If the “closed loops” of ABS open up and become automated, all of these obstacles could represent an opportunity for an automated braking input, raising questions about unattended consequences. It’s great that Car A will be able to stop on its own if a child chasing a ball runs into the street, but what about Car B riding behind Car A who doesn’t have an automated braking system and rear ends Car A? There are definitely some inhibitors that need ironing out.

Ultimately a car must operate in a classic example of an “open system,” a place where obstacles enter and exit the system at will, at random times, in an uncontrollable nature, and the development of truly autonomous vehicles are challenged by this reality. Let’s remember that we’re not just talking about braking as there are many more applications of automated systems. But that reality is the main reason why people are worried about commitment to these technologies. Who is comfortable with driving down a highway at 70 mph in a car entirely controlled by a computer?

But then again, who is comfortable with driving down a highway at 70 mph in a car not entirely controlled by a human because they are distracted by texting?

Let’s say, that for the sake of the argument, automatic braking technology beyond ABS is deployed. A car equipped with this technology is approaching a stop sign. The smart braking technology, using optical sensors, lasers, and radar determines the speed and direction of the car, the distance of the stop sign, and calculates the rate of change in distance between the car and the stop sign. This information is run through an algorithm, and if the results are outside a certain range, the systems take over, applying brakes to the car within a safe jerk, stopping the car safely before the stop sign. It sounds safe, reasonable, and would prevent blown stop signs (and subsequent accidents), but current driver feedback shows drivers are uncomfortable with the development of technology that takes so much control from them.

And yet, reports show that drivers are ecstatic with the notion that they could have digital access to Twitter and Facebook in their cars… How backwards is that? Drivers would rather be able to drive too fast and access social networking sites than be safe and focused on the road.

The point is we might have it all backwards.  Instead of all the fear and loathing over autonomy and all the heavy breathing over driver connectivity (in some cases to vapid, non-value applications such as real-time social media status updates) perhaps we should ensure that the horse comes before the cart.

We need to put safety and security ahead of comfort and convenience … and WAY ahead of entertainment and distraction.

So What Should We Fear Moving Forward?

Perhaps we should be more concerned than enthusiastic about deploying connected devices in the entertainment, information, and comfort realm. The more advanced Human Machine Interface becomes, the more we will talk to our cars, ask for directions, or chat on our cellphone using Bluetooth. This will just lead to multitasking, which makes us worse at each task we manage, resulting in distracted driving. Any new technology that takes our focus off the road should not be taken lightly. A distracted driver is a dangerous one.

Perhaps we should be more enthusiastic than concerned with deploying autonomous technology that will enable safety, security, and efficiency in the passenger car market. Technology is being developed so that cars will be able to drive themselves safely through the most crowded conditions and even communicate with other cars. This will allow your car to seek alternate routes if a traffic jam on your route is detected, or even locate a parking spot in a crowded super size lot. The possibilities of this technology are endless and lead to a more efficient automobile system.

Don’t fear the future of autonomous cars. Some bold predictors are even saying this technology could be the end of car accidents. What’s bad about that?

August 14, 2012