Can we accept autonomous vehicles with autonomous bugs?

-August 07, 2017

We hear and see all sorts of predictions about the future of fully autonomous (self-driving) cars, ranging from “just a few years away” to “much further than you think.” These forecasts come from all sources: by people closely involved with projects, by techno-addicts who are enthralled by the promise of the “new” (often with good reason, but equally often not); by market researchers who sell high-priced optimistic reports; by vendors who hope to sell the many components needed; and by desktop pundits who really don’t know much but it all sounds so good.

I’m in the class of “hopeful but skeptical,” for a variety of reasons: cost (all those electronics don’t come cheap), capacity (a trunk full of electronics doesn’t leave much room for groceries), and perhaps most concerning, my experience and observation that completing the last 10% to 20% of a project takes 80% to 90% of the project’s time, especially when it involves lots of software, many functions, and complex interaction among the many building blocks. I suspect we’ll be at Level 2 and Level 3 of the 5-level autonomous-car hierarchy for a long time before we get to Level 4 and 5 (see “Autonomous driving levels 0 to 5: Understanding the differences.”) We’ll also need a good definition of what level of performance is “good enough;” will it be 95%, 99%, or 99.9999% (and we’ll ignore the legal and liability issues in this assessment)?

It’s a function of where as well: putting a successful higher-level vehicle on the highway is a lot different than doing so in wild-and-crazy urban traffic. And how will Level 5 cars handle parking garages which are poorly marked, with no GPS signal available, so even a human driver can’t figure out how to get to the exit?

There’s another reason I am skeptical. Today’s cars are already heavily loaded with functions, features, and associated software, for both internal functions as well as the driver console and display, and the results are uneven, to be polite. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal, “Help! My Fancy New Car Won’t Stop Beeping,” discussed some of the mostly-software issues that even high-end new cars are having, with frozen displays, unstoppable driver alerts and beeping, confusing controls, and more. I don’t think that the average driver will want to take the half-day “functions and features” classes that some new-car dealers are finding they have to offer; also, even if you do become proficient on your new car, what happens when you travel and rent another make of vehicle?

It’s possible to argue that the problems that the drivers are seeing now will go once cars become so smart that all they have to do is get in and say or type where they want to go. I’d like to think that, but there will still be user displays, entertainment systems, alerts, and updates. In some way, the Tesla mode of downloading updates is both a blessing and a curse because it supports continuous improvement, but it allows constant updates with all the unexpected and often undesirable surprises they bring.

Updates also allow engineers to subconsciously think they can have users become the ultimate beta-testers, although that’s not a viable approach for cars, obviously. I know that developers of autonomous vehicles, such as Google, have logged millions of miles in their test vehicles, and that’s good. Still, testing a relatively small number of such cars, even for millions of miles, is not the same a testing millions of cars for even just a few thousand miles each, as problems which are on the edge of the Bell curve may not show up in the former case. Several years ago, when the Microsoft Windows OS was “buggy” and the blue screen of death (BSOD) was a fairly regular occurrence, the not-so-funny joke was that if you had a car designed by their software team, it would stop by itself every few miles and you’d have to restart it. I surely hope that autonomous vehicles laden with “features” don’t have that type of reputation problem for their first years.

How will this all shake out? I’ll be honest: I don’t know. I do know that if you look at the track record of most such predictions, we can easily conclude that the future arrives both much earlier and much later than was predicted, and in a very different form than anticipated.

So … check back in 5, 10, and even 20 years, and we’ll see how all these predictions turned out. In the interim, I’ll be happy with a car that is very good at doing its basic functions, and not let peripheral functions get in the way.

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