Cars That Think iconCars That Think

Robot Cars To Join Formula E Racing

The Formula E electric motor racing series is adding a robotic opening act: autonomous cars will race just before the human-driven race begins. The races, scheduled for the 2016-2017 season, will comprise a parallel championship called ROBORACE.

The robo-cars won’t have the same specifications as the human-driven ones. Free from the burden of meat and safety hardware, the robot cars could have an hours' endurance, organizers say, which is about double that of last year's human-driven Formula E cars.

Read More

VW's Slow Agony Illustrates Carmakers' Problem With Software

Behind the bit-by-bit revelations of Volkswagen's emissions-cheating scandal lies a larger problem: old-line carmakers are increasingly out of their element in a software-driven manufacturing world, aka the Internet of Things. 

“The automotive industry’s problem has become one of systems integration, with software one of the main things they’re integrating,” according to Bill Curtis, the executive director of the Consortium for IT Software Quality and an IEEE Fellow. “It’s not the job of a classical mechanical enginer, or even an electrical engineer.” Curtis spoke to Spectrum in late October, before the latest stage in VW’s unfolding scandal.

That stage came over the weekend, when Germany’s Handelsblatt reported that CEO Matthias Müller admitted that his company’s software cheat affected not only smaller diesel-powered cars but also the larger, six-cylinder versions offered by the Audi and Porsche divisions. Müller ran Porsche before assuming the top job in late September, replacing Martin Winterkorn, who had departed in disgrace.

The cheat made the cars hew to environmental standards in the lab while flouting them on the road, allowing for nitrous oxide emissions many times higher than what’s allowed in the United States (and significantly higher than the less stringent European requirement). As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has announced that it will test more cars on the road than it has done in the past.

It’s easy to blame VW’s culture for frightening underlings into achieving higher management’s goals at all cost, with no questions asked about how they do it. But there is also another, bigger problem with the process by which software is written at all auto companies.

According to Curtis, the modern car is absorbing digital technology far faster than the car companies’ executives can come to understand it.  

Of course, the auto companies could simply outsource much of their software development, but that risks letting tech companies eat the car guys’ lunch. This fear is particularly strong in Germany, where reliance on home-grown engineering is deeply ingrained and where suspicion of common platforms controlled by the likes of Google and Apple is rife. That suspicion has a name all its own: Plattform-Kapitalismus, as the Economist noted last week.

At stake is not only adherence to the law but also to standards of quality that affect performance, safety and cybersecurity. “Companies like Boeing have developed really rigorous software testing processes,” Curtis says, as opposed to fixing software after the fact. “They know you cannot test-in quality. I’m not sure the [American] automotives know that yet. You don’t test it in—you design it in.” 

German experts, quoted in that Economist article, say that German automakers might derive an advantage from the German method of teaching computer science, which emphasizes precision over speed of development. That would tend to favor the design of very reliable systems—like those that govern safety in a self-driving automobile.

California Says This Time, For Sure, It Will Issue Rules on Driverless Cars

California’s traffic regulatory agency says it hopes to issue rules on driverless cars next month. If so, they’ll come a whole year later than the state legislature had demanded.  

“There are so many things in these regulations that are really complicated that it has taken a long time," Jessica Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Motor Vehicles said on Wednesday, according to the Sacramento Business Journal.

Read More

Japan’s Plan to Speed Self-Driving Cars

Earlier this month Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe got to participate in Japan’s first autonomous driving test on a public road. A Nissan Leaf, a Toyota Lexus, and a prototype Honda toured the vicinity of the National Diet (parliament). It was an important step in a plan that’s meant to boost the stature of Japanese technology and the country’s lackluster economy at the same time.

Read More

Cars Talk to Cars on the Autobahn

When my car can talk to your car, and yours can talk to the next, they’ll all be able to substitute shared data for the one thing robots lack: intuition.

Such talkativeness will allow cars to space themselves out, make room for merging vehicles, and vary their speed without setting off bothersome ripple effects in the traffic behind. Best of all, it will let robocars drive (or appear to drive) a bit more boldly: A well-informed car can pass a semi with such confidence that a human observer might almost mistake it for foolhardiness. 

Real-time communications are a prerequisite, and this week the proof was offered in Germany. “This is the first demonstration of car-to-car communication via a high-speed cellular connection with near-5G performance,” Alexander Dobrindt, Germany’s minister of transport and infrastructure, said in a statement. The experiment was conducted on the recently inaugurated Digital A9 Motorway Testbed, a segment of an autobahn in Bavaria, southern Germany.  

There are other ways of wirelessly linking cars, but cellular networks are particularly attractive because they exist already and don’t require a “handshake”—the time-hogging ritual by which two computers exchange credentials. The highway testbed worked on regular LTE service from Deutsche Telekom, upgraded locally with a Nokia system optimized for rapidly moving vehicles.

Kathrin Buvac, the chief for strategy at Nokia Networks, described the mobile-optimized system as part of both the Internet of Things and the next generation of cellular service. “With Mobile Edge Computing, which was developed chiefly by Nokia, we are already integrating elements of 5G into modern LTE networks,” she said.

The company claims that its technology cuts total transmission lag time to under 20 milliseconds, versus today’s speed limit of 100 milliseconds, at best, and several hundred milliseconds, at worst. But that’s counting the relay time from one car to another, via a central cloud. True 5G is often defined as conducting simple point-to-point transmissions with lag times of just a couple of milliseconds.

These smart-road experiments are designed with self-driving cars in mind, and that raises the question of whether mere mortals will have access to car-to-car chatter—or want it. “Too much information” is a complaint that only a human being could make.

VW Emissions Cheating Scandal Spreads to Sports Cars

Volkswagen’s emissions-cheating scandal continues to grow even in the wake of massive diesel vehicle recalls. New testing by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has discovered the “defeat device” software in another 10,000 diesel luxury vehicles sold under the VW, Audi and Porsche brands. And the U.S. regulators have been investigating a separate emissions-control device used in 2016 car models.

Read More

Self-driving Cars Real-World Safety Tested And Found Okay

Remember the kerfuffle over crash rates of Google cars? We told you then not to take it too seriously, and two academics now second the motion.

Although their study finds that the accident rate of robocars from Google and two other companies is a bit worse than that for human-driven cars, they add that not a single accident has been blamed on a robocar—and those that did occur tended to be less severe than those of conventional cars. Nobody was killed. 

Authors Brandon Schoettle and Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute offer a lot of caveats upfront. The study covered 50 cars that logged a mere 2 million kilometers in tests run by three of the 10 companies working on robocars. And the bulk of the data came from Google, with the rest drawn from Audi and Delphi, the auto supplier.

Read More

Siri and Friends Keep Distracting Drivers Up to 27 Seconds Later

Drivers who love talking to Apple’s Siri or Microsoft’s Cortana in the car might want to reconsider the potentially fatal distraction these “helpers” could cause. New studies show that voice-command technologies can interfere with driver attention for almost half a minute after use.

Read More

Autonomous Car Sets Record in Mexico

An experimental self-driving car has set a record for an autonomous road trip in Mexico. The trip from the U.S.-Mexico border to Mexico City provided the opportunity to collect data and prepare for an even longer upcoming road trip from Reno, Nevada to Mexico City.

Read More

Q&A: Why Fully Autonomous Robot Cars Hail from the 20th Century

A vision of fully autonomous, self-driving cars allowing human owners to nap or read in the car seems to come from the future. But David Mindell, a historian and electrical engineer at MIT, says that the idea of such fully autonomous vehicles roaming the streets represents a more rigid vision left over from the last century. Mindell casts some doubt over the current course along which Google and other huge tech companies are racing to build self-driving cars that don’t require any human supervision.

In his new book, released this month, titled, “Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy” (Viking/Penguin), Mindell envisions a future in which humans are kept in the loop for (mostly) self-driving cars and other robotic technologies, rather than taking them completely out of the equation. To back up his argument, he points to historical examples such as the U.S.-Soviet space race, remotely-controlled underwater submersibles, autopilot systems in commercial aviation, and the rise of drones.

But Mindell is no armchair historian. He draws in part upon his own experiences in developing and piloting remotely-operated and autonomous underwater vehicles used to explore the undersea sites of ancient Greek shipwrecks, the ill-fated passenger liner Lusitania that was sunk by a German U-boat during World War I, and the submerged graveyards of World War II battleships. He is also a qualified civil aviation pilot who has logged more than 1,000 hours of flying time. Among his many titles, he’s an IEEE Senior Member .

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

IEEE Spectrum: You say that today’s drive for fully autonomous vehicles represents a 20th century narrative. Why is that?

David Mindell: I argue that full autonomy is an old idea. The real frontier is collaboration, which includes autonomy but different levels of autonomy at different moments under the control of a human operator. There is no natural kind of progress; it’s up to us to choose the kinds of progress we want to make in technology. I think this [collaborative] progress is both more productive and humane.

The robot is a 20th-century, labor automation idea. We have plenty of robots, but they’re not freestanding, fully autonomous workers. The U.S. Department of Defense put out a report a couple of years ago saying that there are no fully autonomous systems, just like there are no fully autonomous soldiers, sailors and Marines. Everything is embedded in relationships between humans and technology.

Spectrum: What do you think of all the tech companies and automakers that have invested heavily in the idea of fully autonomous self-driving cars?

Mindell: Most of the automobile companies are not pushing for full autonomy. Most of them are pretty realistic about building up automated features and still letting drivers manage them. It’s not an easy problem to solve, but it’s a worthwhile problem. Whereas going to sleep in the trunk [of a self-driving car] is maybe not the way to think about it. Why not use technology to engage people more deeply in the world rather than cocoon them?

Spectrum: There may be some people who like sitting in the cocoon rather than being more engaged as they drive. What about them?

Mindell: I think you’ll see fully autonomous vehicles in niche applications such as Disney World, college campuses, military bases, or senior citizen centers—places with well-controlled conditions and environments that are not changing much. But everything we know about dangerous machines under the control of complex software systems says we still want people there to mitigate the risks to human life.

In a sense, full autonomy is the idea that engineers have understood the [driving] task and environment completely before the trip begins. We know people on the frontline see things in the environment that are difficult to foresee. Why not allow for their input?

Spectrum: How about the supposed safety benefits of fully autonomous, self-driving cars?

Mindell: Who has demonstrated a fully autonomous car that is safer? Any tech system that you multiply by the overall scale of automotive use in this country or across the world is going to have even the minute flaws magnified in thousands of deaths. Every reason we should think about new technology is to keep making driving safer. There’s no evidence that taking human judgment out of the loop is going to make it safer.

Do people make mistakes? Yes. Stupid mistakes? Yes. But people are also making small corrections and improving the system by reacting to small failures and small uncertainties and unpredictable things, including other people. It would be crazy to get rid of the risk mitigation factors that people provide. Those are not dramatic examples because they don’t prevent accidents in an obvious way. But we’re a long way from a [fully autonomous] software system that can manage that.

Spectrum: What about historical examples of how autonomous systems performed compared with semi-autonomous systems?

Mindell: The Soviets, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, had spacecraft that were more automated than those operated by NASA—mainly because they had less-advanced [analog computer] technology. NASA’s Apollo moon program had digital, fly-by-wire computers and software. But those advanced technologies enabled NASA to have a better, more nuanced inclusion of astronauts in the loop rather than automating them out. You see time and again that the most advanced technology is the most flexible.

Spectrum: That’s very interesting. Many people tend to think that full autonomy represents the most advanced technology.

Mindell: This is part of the thesis of my book. We shouldn’t assume the most automated technology is the most advanced. Want to build an airplane that can take off, get around weather and land by itself? We solved that 20 years ago. But doing it in the social context of taking off into the same crowded airspace that others are using, flying over people’s heads and landing at a busy airport? We’ve barely begun to solve that problem. Time and time again, for most autonomous systems to be really valuable and useful and economically viable, they need to operate in close proximity to human systems.

Spectrum: What do you think of the current focus of Google and other tech companies pursuing self-driving cars?

Mindell: Overall, robotics is still focused on full autonomy as the ultimate goal. Researchers should be working on a “perfect five” with trusted, transparent, flexible collaboration between people and autonomous systems. (The “perfect five” refers to the middle of a scale for automation that ranges from very low at level 1, to fully autonomous at 10; the concept is based on the work of Tom Sheridan, professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.)

Such systems should have the ability to turn on autonomy when it can be helpful. Autonomy can reduce human workload and fatigue, but humans should still be present in the system. That’s an empirical argument based on everything we’ve seen in the last 40 years of autonomous systems. People are always thinking that full autonomy is just around the corner. But there are 30 to 40 examples in the book, and in every one, autonomy gets tempered by human judgment and experience.

Spectrum: You’ve said that the best way forward involves a mix of humans, remotely-controlled systems and autonomous robots. Do you think the future you’re hoping for is the one we’re likely to see?

Mindell: I’m hoping the likely future is the one I’m arguing for. There is a quote in the book from the chief of BMW saying “People buy our cars because people like driving them; we’d be crazy to cut them out of the loop.” I think the world is ready for a more nuanced approach to robotics.


Cars That Think

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

Senior Editor
Philip E. Ross
New York City
Assistant Editor
Willie D. Jones
New York City
Senior Writer
Evan Ackerman
Berkeley, Calif.
Lucas Laursen

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Cars That Think newsletter and get biweekly updates, all delivered directly to your inbox.

Load More