Will they go the way of elec­tric cars?

New Zealand Classic Car - - Contents -

In the early 1960s, when some of us ‘older folk’ were get­ting used to tele­vi­sion, al­beit in a very lim­ited for­mat com­pared with that of to­day, there was a Hanna-bar­bera car­toon se­ries called The Jet­sons. The Jet­sons fol­lowed a comic fu­tur­is­tic fam­ily com­pris­ing Ge­orge, wife Jane, daugh­ter Judy, son El­roy, and their dog Astro. Their trans­port was es­sen­tially a fly­ing car. Given that it was only some 50-some­thing years since the Wright Broth­ers (or Richard Pearce) had taken to the skies for the first time, it was not un­re­al­is­tic for a school­boy to be­lieve that the Jet­son fam­ily’s fly­ing car was ac­tu­ally not that far-fetched, as a con­cept. Around that time, bat­tery-op­er­ated cars were com­ing out of Ja­pan, Ger­many, France, and even Great Bri­tain, but they were all toys of around 30cm to 40cm in length. No one in my cir­cle of friends ever con­sid­ered that full-sized cars would be bat­tery-pow­ered, let alone be ‘driver­less’. One has to re­mem­ber that com­put­ers were in their in­fancy in the mid to late 1960s, and this scribe worked for the then–bank of New Zealand com­puter cen­tre, where the bank’s IBM 360/30 com­puter took up an en­tire floor!

Pro­tect­ing their patch

Then, in 1996, elec­tric cars be­gan to ap­pear on roads all over Cal­i­for­nia. To quote the doc­u­men­tary, “They were quiet and fast, pro­duced no ex­haust and ran with­out gaso­line (petrol). Ten years later they were de­stroyed.” Gen­eral Mo­tors’ fleet of EV-1 elec­tric ve­hi­cles was so ef­fi­cient that it was on the brink of al­ter­ing the fu­ture of driv­ing in Amer­ica, per­haps even the world. So why were they all de­stroyed? The con­spir­acy the­o­rist in me would sug­gest that it was the oil in­dus­try pro­tect­ing its patch.

Now car man­u­fac­tur­ers are not only mak­ing elec­tric ve­hi­cles once again, but also there is the grow­ing de­vel­op­ment of the driver­less con­cept. I have pre­vi­ously said that there is al­ready ev­i­dence that driver­less cars are present on our roads as we speak, and can be seen at any in­ter­sec­tion. You’ve seen them! The ones where the driver is oth­er­wise oc­cu­pied with cos­metic touch-ups in the rear-view mir­ror or smok­ing, while clutch­ing their trusty mo­bile phone in the other hand and steer­ing with their knees, etc. But leav­ing the idiots aside for the mo­ment, it would seem that driver­less cars are on their way. They will be known as ‘AVS’ — au­to­mated ve­hi­cles — and will ac­cel­er­ate au­ton­o­mous driv­ing tech­nol­ogy.

Al­ready there has been one fa­tal­ity in­volv­ing a Tesla Model S. Seem­ingly, the driver, er, pas­sen­ger, may have been dis­tracted and failed to no­tice that the car’s sys­tem hadn’t iden­ti­fied a sig­nif­i­cant haz­ard — the truck it hit! Ap­par­ently, sev­eral of the car’s sen­sors were try­ing to in­ter­pret con­flict­ing in­for­ma­tion. Ex­perts have been iden­ti­fy­ing the types of haz­ards that driver­less cars (AVS) will have to con­tend with.

Road­works were what stuffed up a 5470km AV com­mute across the US in April 2005, when en­gi­neers had to take con­trol of the car for some 80km when it en­coun­tered road­works and un­marked lanes. One of Google’s self-driv­ing cars col­lided with a bus in Moun­tain View as it tried to nav­i­gate its way around some sand­bags on the street. And then there is the rain. Rain can cre­ate vis­i­bil­ity prob­lems in that the ac­cu­racy of the laser-based Li­dar sen­sors and can cre­ate con­fus­ing re­flec­tions and glare.

The the­ory

I guess the great­est prob­lem that I can see is that of hack­ers. Re­mem­ber the odome­ter-tam­per­ing de­ba­cle with Ja­panese im­ports in the not too dis­tant past? And how tech­nol­ogy was de­vel­oped to pre­vent tam­per­ing? Most no­table of the de­vel­op­ments was that of BMW, which had (in some cases) no fewer than eight sep­a­rate com­puter stor­age de­vices in the car. The the­ory was that if some­one tam­pered with the odome­ter, then the other com­put­ers would re­veal the cor­rect mileage. Then some smart alec de­vel­oped a pro­gram that, when con­nected to the car’s on-board com­puter, sim­ply asked the car where all the com­put­ers were and changed the mileage on each one. The car was then pre­sented for in­spec­tion and the ‘you can trust this odome­ter’ sticker duly af­fixed!

In the event that it is stolen, BMW can also dis­able your car via satel­lite wher­ever it hap­pens to be in the world when it is taken. There’s the low-life scream­ing down the high­way in your pride and joy when, all of a sud­den, the car grinds to a halt, hav­ing been dis­abled. Now that would cer­tainly draw at­ten­tion to the sit­u­a­tion, wouldn’t it?

So my pre­dic­tion is that, even now, there will be some techno-freak work­ing away at a pro­gram which will al­low him/her to ac­cess your driver­less car and take con­trol of it. The worry is that some nasty type will then de­lib­er­ately drive the car into an ob­sta­cle; an­other ve­hi­cle; or, heaven for­bid, a pedes­trian — just for fun! You can buy mo­bile-phone jam­mers now, so it is not a gi­ant step to think that these Av-hack­ing de­vices will also be avail­able for a price (pun in­tended!)

Twice as high

The big­gest prob­lem fac­ing the de­vel­op­ment of AVS is, wait for it — hu­mans! The sta­tis­tics sug­gest that hu­mans are at fault in as many as 90 per cent of crashes. And ap­par­ently the numbers of ac­ci­dents in­volv­ing AVS are twice as high as those for reg­u­lar cars. But the ex­perts are quick to de­fend AVS, claim­ing that inat­ten­tive driv­ers in­evitably hit the rear of some AVS be­cause they were not pro­ceed­ing as fast/far as was first thought. Just imag­ine that here in New Zealand! An AV is pro­grammed to slow down and stop for an or­ange light. Bug­ger! All those idiots who would in any other cir­cum­stances hit the throt­tle to beat the red light will sim­ply run up the rear of the AV! One of the ad­van­tages of driv­ing your­self is that you can of­ten make eye con­tact with the other driver, ei­ther im­me­di­ately, or af­ter you have blasted him/her with your Alpine horns. How would you alert an AV to your pres­ence? Air horn? Can they be pro­grammed to hear? Would they un­der­stand a hand ges­ture?

Re­mem­ber the ‘watch out for the mo­tor­bike’ stick­ers? Will an AV be pro­grammed to look out for us mo­tor­cy­clists? And most im­por­tant, what are the cre­den­tials of the AV pro­gram­mers? Will an AV that was de­vel­oped for the Euro­pean mar­ket be able to run on New Zealand roads? Will it be pro­grammed to watch out for kids sud­denly run­ning out onto the road? Or farm kids hurtling out of farm drive­ways on their ATVS or while not wear­ing a skid lid?

The ex­perts are in­di­cat­ing that we will have fully func­tion­ing AVS by 2030 — that’s only 13 years from now! Those same ex­perts also claim that by 2025 most of to­day’s driv­ers will be un­likely to even want to own a car. Well, that’s in­ter­est­ing. I cer­tainly have no in­ten­tion of hand­ing over my safety to some sus­pect tech­nol­ogy that is ripe for hack­ing and thus cre­at­ing dan­ger for the oc­cu­pant. To quote Al from the Home Im­prove­ment TV se­ries, “I don’t think so, Tim!” So what’s the so­lu­tion? On an on­line auc­tion site at the mo­ment, some­one is sell­ing a cou­ple of ex-army tanks. Maybe I should buy one of those? It would be no trou­ble get­ting park­ing at the su­per­mar­ket, in­ter­sec­tions would be a breeze, and mo­bile­phone dither­ers would sim­ply be­come the muck that gets caught up in the tracks. Now, where’s my com­puter?

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