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Mark Ortiz Automotive is a chassis consulting service primarily serving oval track and road racers. This newsletter is a free service intended to benefit racers and enthusiasts by offering useful insights into chassis engineering and answers to questions. Readers may mail questions to: 155 Wankel Dr., Kannapolis, NC 28083-8200; submit questions by phone at 704-933-8876; or submit questions by e-mail to: email@example.com. Readers are invited to subscribe to this newsletter by e-mail. Just e-mail me and request to be added to the list.
THOUGHTS ON SELF-PILOTING AND REMOTELY PILOTED VEHICLES
This isn’t exactly a chassis question, but it does relate to vehicle design and I’d be interested in your take on it. What do you think about self-driving cars or drone cars? Do you think this is the future? Do you think it’s good or bad?
This is certainly a hot topic these days. I see it discussed everywhere: SAE forums, groups on LinkedIn, a bicyclist rights Facebook group I’m on, and now in the magazine I write for (http://www.racecar-engineering.com/articles/technology/summoning-the-demon/?utm_source=The%20Chelsea%20Magazine%20Company%20Ltd&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=6973366_RCE%20Editorial%20April%202016&dm_i=6NM,45GOM,MT48MK,F3BZJ,1).
The subject is huge, and people will no doubt be talking and arguing about it for the rest of my life and well beyond. The situation will evolve, and my views on it may evolve too. But as of right now, here’s the “executive summary” of my opinion: in a controlled environment like a race track, as an engineering exercise, unmanned vehicles offer fascinating possibilities and could be good fun; on the street, they absolutely must be prohibited, for reasons that I don’t see anybody else talking about but which absolutely must be talked about. In fact, I’ll go further than that. Driver aids and wireless connection of cars to the “internet of things” are out of control, and need to be curbed.
First, let’s define what we’re talking about. We now have remotely piloted aerial vehicles, commonly called drones, which are used for military purposes, hobby activity, and surveillance. To an increasing degree, the control technologies used for unmanned aircraft are being applied to land vehicles and watercraft. The control technologies have now evolved to the point where some vehicles can operate with no human pilot at all. Some can navigate, operate, target weapons, and kill people without even an identifiable remote human operator anywhere in the loop.
The technologies at issue break down into the following categories:
· Partially automated control of manned or unmanned vehicles
· Remote control of manned or unmanned vehicles
· Fully automated control (autonomy) of manned or unmanned vehicles
These categories are useful as an intellectual framework. However, in real life, we will not necessarily see clear demarcation between these things. With inanimate entities as with animate ones, autonomy is not absolute; it is relative: it is a matter of degree.
What is being planned is not simply individual vehicles that can operate with no driver intervention and safely navigate themselves and their human and/or other cargo to a destination. The idea is to integrate both “autonomous” and “human piloted” vehicles into an intelligent vehicle and highway system (IVHS). This means these automated control systems will be subject to extensive wireless monitoring and intervention, which will modify the behavior of the vehicles, both as individual entities and as group systems.
Some of the prospective benefits of this are very appealing. It’s likely that both roads and vehicles can be used more efficiently. Traffic can be routed around choke points. Vehicles can be operated in closer proximity to each other. Vehicles on the highway can be formed into nose-to-tail drafting packs or platoons, saving both space and fuel. A queue of cars at a red light can accelerate almost simultaneously when the light turns green. People in the cars can read, work, message each other, make all sorts of pleasurable and productive use of their travel time, much as they can now in a bus or airplane, without having to worry about causing a crash. If the system can be made sufficiently reliable, many deaths and injuries might be prevented – not only for motorists but for pedestrians and cyclists as well.
There are serious prospective problems as well, which I will address shortly.
First, though, what about the possibilities for motorsports? What happens when we can replace the “flawed component”, the driver, with some electromechanical system? Before examining this, we should note that the driver is an electromechanical system, and really a pretty good one: superbly versatile and adaptable, unusually reliable and long-lived, self-repairing, capable of very complex interaction with other such systems, and already available in inexhaustible supply.
Moreover, at all but the top levels of motorsport, the driver is available free! Not only is the driver free, but he/she will engage in a limitless variety of non-driving activities in order to provide the car. It will be some time before a robot does that.
In most racing, designing, building, tuning, maintaining, and repairing the car is a chore. Driving it is the payoff. What Formula SAE/Formula Student team has a shortage of volunteers to drive the car? That’s unheard of. Finding volunteers to work on the car is what’s hard.
So why would you want to build a self-driving race car? You do all the work, and then the car has all the fun. That’s like devising a robot to have sex for you (as opposed to having sex with you, which is more like race cars as we know them). It’s probably possible, but why would you want to? Actually, I guess there might be situations where you would want a robot to have sex for you, but my point should be clear.
When racing is not done for pleasure, it is done as a business. Economically, professional racing is viable because it attracts eyeballs, which can then be charged admission and/or sold to advertisers. Why do people like to watch racing? I think it’s because they vicariously experience some of the pleasure and thrill the driver gets. The buzz from driving a racing car is so good that people not only will pay really big money to have the experience themselves but will also pay fairly serious money just for a little contact high.
So will people want to watch driverless cars race? I guess we’ll find out. I do think there are enough people who will build them. People already do. Mostly, these are remotely controlled rather than completely driverless. They are scale models, and consequently much cheaper than full-sized driverless cars. There is even one type of model car racing with absolutely no driver, remote or otherwise. I am referring to the Pinewood Derby, as conducted since before I was a child by the Boy Scouts of America. This is a gravity race for model cars. The track is a straight ramp. Each lane has a raised central rail that guides the car. Cars are placed at the top of the ramp, held in place by blocks which are attached to a common shaft. The starter rotates the shaft to flip the blocks down and release all the cars simultaneously. There are no drivers in any sense – only builders.
These events certainly attract participants. But spectators? Not many – mostly just friends and family of the participants.
From the standpoint of making the cars go fast, there is definitely a case for eliminating the driver. Many of the advantages are similar to those in pilotless aircraft. The automatic control doesn’t even need to be fully as good as a live driver. It just needs to be almost as good. There are other advantages that can outweigh a small disadvantage in quality of driving. The driver doesn’t have to be packaged. There is no need for windows. The controller can manage a huge variety of devices at once. The vehicle can undergo acceleration and jerk of far greater magnitudes than the human body can sustain.
I think that even with existing control technology, it should be possible to create driverless cars that will lap existing tracks at much higher speeds than existing manned cars, if the advantages described above are exploited. However, the Roboracer competition described in the linked article is intended primarily to further control system development. There appears to be a good chance that robotic car racing will be promoted not as a spectator sport but as a laboratory to develop control systems for use in road cars and military applications. Certainly we have already seen autonomous vehicle competitions funded by DARPA precisely for this purpose.
On the one hand, this could be seen as a good thing. It could be a chance to have racing that truly justifies its existence as a means of improving the breed, and is therefore morally justified and socially useful, rather than just a way to have fun or make money. On the other hand, the ethics of the whole endeavor are only as good as the ethics of the “breed” being improved – and there are extremely grave problems there.
The question of whether we want computers to control cars and other devices that can kill is much like the question of whether we want them to count votes. Computers can count votes much more conveniently and potentially somewhat more accurately than live humans. However, they can also be programmed to rig the count in any number of ways, and there is no way to tell whether the programming is honest or not. It has been demonstrated that code can be written that will produce a rigged vote count and then self-delete, leaving no trace that it was ever there.
Similarly, computer controlled cars, or even partially computer controlled ones, can be made to save lives or to take them. And there lies the big problem, the major fly in the ointment that leads me to insist that computer-controlled cars, wirelessly connected to the “internet of things” must be prohibited, despite all the potential advantages I have described.
Consider what has come to light in the controversy surrounding the death of investigative journalist Michael Hastings. He was killed when his new C-class Mercedes, with state-of-the-art driver aids, including lane control, yaw control, ABS, traction control, and electronic control of steering assist, brakes, and throttle, all in communication with the “internet of things”, apparently went berserk and crashed. Many have suggested that his car was hacked. Others have dismissed this as tin-foil-hat paranoia. Here’s what we do know:
· Hastings told close friends he was working on a story of unprecedented significance, that would expose massive wrongdoing by the rich and powerful.
· Hastings had misgivings about the car. He had just gotten it back from being checked out at the dealership. He asked a friend if he could borrow hers.
· The car was recorded on a surveillance camera less than a block from where it crashed, travelling at an insane speed – not like it was driven by a reckless driver or a person being chased (and nobody was in pursuit), but like a car with the throttle stuck wide open and the brakes not working.
· Shortly thereafter, the car veered off a straight road into the median, leaving no skid marks. It struck a tree with such force that the engine was ejected and came to rest a long distance down the block.
· Not long before this, a group of white hat hackers had demonstrated that they could tamper with a car’s driver aids to make them cause a crash instead of preventing one. They were able to trigger some of this misbehavior from the back seat with a cell phone.
For our discussion here, we do not need to resolve the question of whether Hastings committed suicide by motor vehicle, was intoxicated, was the victim of a “glitch”, was murdered, or wasn’t even in the car and staged the whole thing to disappear. The relevant point is that computerized car controls can be hacked, or malfunction, and this can cause crashes that are extraordinarily
convenient for the Powers That Be, and that cannot be definitively proven to be anything but an accident. Even if they can be proven to be non-accidental, it cannot be determined who was responsible. We thus have the domestic civilian equivalent of the drone strikes that our government uses to execute foreign civilians in our name without trial.
Oh, but we must do something about the terrible death toll caused by fallible humans in cars, must we not? In the US, we lose between 30,000 and 40,000 lives to motor vehicle crashes every year. How can anyone be so callous as to suggest that anything outweighs the lives that could be saved if we replace fallible human drivers with electronics?
First of all, computers and other electronics are anything but infallible themselves. They are subject to crashes, intermittent faults, “glitches”, hacking, viruses, and on and on. I sometimes see people insist that electronics are the most reliable part of a car. I strongly suspect that most of these people get a new car every year, probably from the car company they work for. In fact, I think we can attribute human fallibility not to our not being electronic devices but to the fact that we are electronic devices.
Second, 30,000 to 40,000 deaths sounds horrendous, but we need to put that in context. We have about 2.6 to 2.7 million deaths per year in the US. The vast preponderance of them are from disease. Heart disease and cancer alone account for more than half. Accidents of all types are about 4.4%. Motorist deaths in car crashes are about 1.3%. That’s about the same percentage as suicides. Add in non-motorist deaths from collisions with motor vehicles, and the number is still under 2%. You have about as much chance of being killed by a human-piloted car as you have of deliberately killing yourself.
We are being asked to share the road with cars that are controlled by nobody can really know what or whom, and that are subject to the caprices of complex electronics. Coming at the same time are ubiquitous RFID chips and biometric recognition. These cars will be able to detect not merely your presence, but your identity as well. This all can easily be combined with the massive electronic surveillance that we all know is already operating, and software like that recently introduced in China, which assigns you a “social credit” score similar to a financial credit score, based on almost everything you do and say.
Taken as a whole, such a system provides its rulers with the means to identify anybody who might challenge their power and wealth, erase such persons from the face of the earth with the click of a mouse, and have the whole event indistinguishable from an accident. This will neatly eliminate the troublesome need to hire live assassins and protect the assassins by corrupting the courts.
Show me somebody who has the means to kill with impunity, and I’ll show you somebody who will be sorely tempted to use it. Show me a ruling elite who have such a capability as the result of decades of effort and the expenditure of trillions of dollars, and I’ll show you somebody who is guaranteed to use it.
A society run by an elite with such capabilities can only be an authoritarian dystopia. Robocars are not the totality of this system, and their prohibition is not a foolproof bulwark against tyranny. But they are the capstone to the system of automated social control. They are the tip of the spear, the means to translate intelligence into absolute power on the ground, with total impunity. It is not wise to accept that in exchange for gains in efficiency or convenience, or the hope of reducing a hazard that is only about as likely to kill you as you are to kill yourself.