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Google Patents a Way For Robocars to Decide When Not to Drive

Google famously wants to build a self-driving car so reliable it won’t even have a steering wheel. But for now, even Google’s prototype cars on California roads still allow both autonomous and manual-drive modes. How, then, does Google plan to handle the robot-human handoff?

A U.S. patent just issued to the company suggests that switching from one mode to the other might involve rather more than just pressing a button. In “Engaging and Disengaging for Autonomous Driving”, granted in July, Google human factors engineer Brian Cullinane presents a system that could make it harder to persuade a self-driving car to move than it would be to just drive it yourself.

The patent proposes a checklist the smart car might follow after the driver selects autonomous driving. First it would check whether it’s safe to switch modes. This could include measuring the distance to neighboring or oncoming vehicles, detecting whether the road is paved, unobstructed and wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other, and whether any maneuvers are imminently required. (Some people might be tempted to hit the self-driving button when they’re about to crash, in an attempt to shift legal liability to the robot driver). 

Second, Google suggests, the self-driving car might refuse to enter autonomous mode if the car is traveling out of its lane or above the speed limit, or even if the road ahead is hilly or curved. The car will also need an awareness of its wider surroundings. If it can’t get a firm fix on its location, or is traveling outside a well-mapped area, it might balk at taking over. And it might need to know its legal status: perhaps autonomous vehicles will be forbidden to operate in some school zones or in certain states.

Another item on the checklist is meteorology. According to the patent:

Assessments may include… determining whether the current or future weather would make autonomous driving unsafe, uncomfortable for the vehicle’s passengers or damage the vehicle.

If your car thinks a hailstorm might dent its paintwork, it might decide not to go for that scenic drive through the mountains. 

Cars will likely also check their mechanical condition. They might require tires pumped to a certain pressure, adequate oil levels, and lights and wipers set for automatic operation. It’s almost certain that no self-driving car will budge without closed doors and everyone inside wearing seatbelts. Even the occupants may not escape scrutiny, says Google:

Computer may also use protocol data to assess the status of the vehicle driver. For example… using sensors or other methods to determine driver sleepiness, driver intoxication, or whether the driver is authorized or not to use the vehicle.

The Google patent notes that cars may be able to overcome some of these “‘preventive conditions’” themselves, by recalibrating sensors, changing settings or simply waiting for road conditions to change. Most of the restrictions, however, will require corrective action from a human. Google suggests listing tasks, one by one, on the instrument cluster until either the car is ready to take charge or the driver gives up and drives herself. 

Google observes that getting cars to cede control back to a human might be almost as tricky: 

Under certain specific conditions, the computer may also discourage the driver from switching from autonomous mode and into the manual driving mode. For example, it may not be easy to safely return control to the driver in the middle of a sharp turn.

Suddenly, Google’s dream of steering wheel-free, hassle-free motoring doesn’t sound quite so bad. Which, perhaps, was entirely the point of this patent. 

Why Automated Cars Need New Traffic Laws

When Delphi took its prototype Audi robocar from San Francisco to New York in April, the car obeyed every traffic law, hewing to the speed limit even if that meant impeding the flow of traffic.

"You can imagine the reaction of the drivers around us,” Michael Pozsar, director of electronic controls at Delphi, said at a conference in Michigan last week, according to Automotive News.  “Oh, boy. It's a good thing engineers have thick skin. All kinds of indecent hand gestures were made to our drivers.”

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Fiat Chrysler Recalls 1.4 Million Vehicles to Patch Software's Security Flaw

Today, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration ordered a recall of 1.4 million Fiat Chrysler vehicles to fix a software glitch whose existence two hackers recently demonstrated by commandeering a moving Jeep.

As we reported yesterday, Fiat Chrysler, together with the hackers, had already devised a software patch and made it available to owners of Jeeps and other affected vehicles. But NHTSA evidently felt the need to order a formal recall, perhaps to spur owners to action.

The patch will be made available either as as a memory stick or through a download. 

Hackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek demonstrated their skills by taking remote control of a Jeep on a highway. They turned on music, the windshield wipers, and the air conditioning system, then flashed their smiling faces on the center console display. They got into the system through its communications system, typically the most vulnerable point in a car.

Hackers Commandeer a Moving Jeep

Two hackers took remote control of a Jeep on a highway, turning on music, windshield wipers, and the air conditioning system. Then they flashed their smiling faces on the display.

It was all staged, of course, by our redoubtable rival, Wired magazine, whose Andy Greenberg knew only that he’d be hacked, not how. In fact, after recovering from the poltergeist-like possession of the Jeep’s peripheral features he got the full treatment: the transmission cut out and he slowed to a crawl. 

Staged or not, it was a genuine demonstration of the point that hackers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek have been making with such tricks over the years: today’s connected cars are full of holes. More tricks are in store, from them and others, including a hacker-fest which Tesla is sponsoring at a “black hat” hacker’s convention early next month Las Vegas. The goal is to breach the security of a Tesla Model S.

At that convention Miller and Valasek will give details on how they commandeered the Jeep. All they’ve said so far is that they entered it via Chrysler’s Uconnect car communications system, needing to know nothing more than the Jeep’s IP address.

Such systems are typically the weakest point in today’s car. Last year a 14-year-old at a computer summer camp bought $15 worth of parts to build a box that let him hack into a Chevrolet Impala, exploiting General Motors’ Onstar communications system.

Fiat Chrysler, the manufacturer of the Jeep, denounced the pair for describing the exploit, even though the company—after working with the hackers for nine months—has been able to cover this particular hole with a software patch, which it has issued to Jeep owners.

“Unfortunately, Chrysler’s patch must be manually implemented via a USB stick or by a dealership mechanic,” writes Greenberg. “That means many—if not most—of the vulnerable Jeeps will likely stay vulnerable.”

Test-Driving an Audi With Laser Headlights

It’s hard enough to tear around a tricky racetrack in broad daylight, let alone on a pitch-black Portuguese night. But that’s when the laser spotlight on Audi’s new 2017 R8 supercar comes into its own.

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Airless Tires Roll Towards Consumer Vehicles

Air-filled (pneumatic) tires give our vehicles comfortable, cushiony rides. (Thanks tires, we appreciate that.) Looking at it from another perspective, pneumatic tires are containers of pressurized gas that are being subjected to constant abuse, and when something happens to them, it can result in a situation that falls somewhere between a minor annoyance and a deadly catastrophe. We’ve ridden on these things for about 130 years now, and while they’ve improved substantially since John Dunlop invented them to keep his kid from getting headaches while riding his bike, it seems that we can still do better. Hankook is trying to make better happen with a consumer-oriented airless tire.

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Plastic Roads Sound Like a Crazy Idea, Maybe Aren’t

America has an infrastructure problem. Part of that problem is our roads, which are either in terrible condition or in the process of being torn up by road crews who’ll make them better—until, that is, they’re in terrible condition again. It’s time to try something radical, and for that, we (as always) look to the Dutch for inspiration.

A Dutch construction company called VolkerWessels is partnering with the city of Rotterdam to create a prototype for a prefabricated plastic road. If it works, it would be durable, fast to construct, and way better for the environment than asphalt.

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Range Rover Recall is Due to a Software Glitch

Range Rover is recalling 65,000 cars, a number that would normally be too small to merit mention in these days of mega-recalls. But this one has to do with a door that might come unlatched because of buggy software—a complaint that will become more common as software takes over more of the driving experience.

The British-based manufacturer reported the problem to U.S. National Highway Safety Administration (NHTSA) in mid-June, noting that some customers had had a door fly open while the car was in motion. Ranger Rover notified those affected, namely the owners of the Range Rover of the 2013-2016 model years and of the Range Rover Sport of the 2014-2016 model years.

Meanwhile, Subaru today recalled 34,000 Impreza ​cars for reasons that certainly involve electronics and therefore may also involve software. The control unit that is supposed to deploy the front-passenger-seat airbag during a crash may fail to do so because it can’t detect that a person is sitting in that seat. According to NHTSA, the problem can arise when the passenger “operates a device that is plugged into the power outlet, such as a music player or cell phone, or touches a metal part of the vehicle such as the forward/rearward seat adjuster lever.” 

Last year Range Rover had what the company says was an unrelated software vulnerability that allowed hackers to use “black box” tools to steal vehicles equipped with keyless ignition systems. BMW had a similar problem. Both companies have since remedied the problem.

You might think it would be hard to make such a black box, but last year a 14-year-old boy attending a carmaker-sponsored summer camp put one together with spare parts bought overnight for US $15 and used it to hack into a car made by an undisclosed major manufacturer. We here at IEEE Spectrum tried to track down the kid, but the organizers wouldn’t allow it—not even for the purpose of granting him a year’s free subscription to our magazine. Just a year—after all, it isn’t rocket science.

Solar Powered Family Car Generates More Energy Than It Uses

Solar powered vehicles, whether we’re talking about cars or airplanes, usually share the characteristic of perpetually almost falling apart. What I mean is, solar power is so close to not being usable that vehicles must be as light as possible, or they will not fly (or drive). Technology is improving, though, and it’s at the point where a team from the Eindhoven University of Technology has been able to create a solar powered car that manages to seat four while generating more energy over the course of the year than it uses to drive.

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Watch This Fellow Drive a Ranger Rover With a Smart Phone

“Well, let’s see how it responds to my touch,” James Bond says to “Q” in the movie “Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997). Then, drawing his finger across the touchpad of a phone, Bond sends a weapon-festooned BMW careening about without mishap.

Life imitates art. This veddy British film appears to have exerted a certain influence over a new generation of British boffins, who have pulled off the same trick with an app, a smart phone, and a Range Rover. It’s all shown in this recent episode of “Fully Charged,” an online transportation show hosted by actor and tech-enthusiast Robert Llewellyn:

It’s no mere parlor trick. Even this experiment in remote driving depended on an element of computer assistance, which cars are getting in ever-increasing abundance. At first the computer helps the driver with routine things, like parking; next the driver helps the computer with harder things, like nosing into crosstraffic; and finally the computer takes over entirely.

Another instance of what might be called driving by remote control is when a person steers with small movements of his head and mouth. That’s the idea behind the semi-autonomous motorcar, or SAM, named for the man who drives it, Sam Schmidt—a paralyzed former Indycar racer. The project is managed by Arrow, the Colorado electronics company.

True, Schmidt isn’t remote—he sits right behind the wheel of the car, a modified Corvette. But he controls it with the indirect panache of Bond himself. He steers by looking in the direction he wants to go, accelerates by puffing on a straw, and brakes by sipping on that same straw:


Cars That Think

IEEE Spectrum’s blog about the sensors, software, and systems that are making cars smarter, more entertaining, and ultimately, autonomous.
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