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Autonomous cars drive toward reliability, security hurdles

02 Mar 2015  | Jim McGregor

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Today's driving experience has made a complete 180-degree turn as compared to how it was initially intended to be. From an entirely human-controlled means of transportation, the world has now seen the birth of 'intelligent' cars and will have more of these amazingly smart automobiles rolling the streets sooner than you expect. However, just like any emerging technology, a number of issues first need to be adequately addressed before it can be rolled out in a wider scale.

Automobiles no longer resemble the mechanical beasts they once were. In fact, they are more similar to today's smartphone. Cars are increasingly combining the best in transportation, communications and entertainment systems into a single platform. The once mechanical control systems like braking and steering are now electronically controlled, the infotainment systems rival that of high-end home theatre systems, and the vehicles are being connected to the cloud for communications and a plethora of new functions that can both assist or even pilot the vehicle without human intervention. Entities ranging from DARPA to Google to Mercedes are rapidly pushing to remake cars of the future. The result will be vehicles that are more fuel efficient, safer and technically advanced.

Google self-driving car prototype

Google self-driving car prototype

However, driving an autonomous car gives rise other issues such as safety, security, reliability and ownership costs.

The first issue is safety for both the vehicle occupants as well as others around the vehicle such as pedestrians and other drivers. While human drivers are far from safe, expectations will be higher on driver assisted or autonomous systems. These platforms must have the ability to see not only what the human eye can see but also what it cannot, predict the actions of other objects, and react in very complex environments and situations. This requires the ability rapidly collect, analyse and act upon vast amounts of information in real-time, as well as the ability to continuously learn from every situation. In this aspect, the human brain is unmatched. The cloud is a great resource, but hardly one that can provide this type of real-time solution. Can we pack enough information and computing horsepower into a car to achieve the required safety levels?

The second issue is reliability and it is closely tied to safety. Although mechanical systems are prone to failure, they do typically have somewhat defined lifespans given proper maintenance minus any manufacturing defects. In addition, mechanical systems often demonstrate signs of wear or fatigue before failing. Electronic systems don't share those characteristics. As a result, electronic systems must be constantly monitored, have built-in redundancy to protect against failure, and in the case of controlling a vehicle, the systems must have failsafe designs to allow the driver/occupant to be able to take control in the case of a failure.

To be sure, the automotive industry takes this issues very seriously because failure can mean loss of life. Standards such as ISO 26262 provide stringent guidelines for electronic safety and reliability requirements. However, as we integrate more system into the vehicle, the sure complexity raises issues, and if cloud connectivity is required for the complex systems, connectivity becomes a critical issue. The closer the industry moves toward autonomous vehicles, the reliability demands increase exponentially. No one wants the death of an individual at the hands of a computer-controlled vehicle.

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