Maximum Overclock

Could autonomous cars save lives? How will autonomous cars protect against malfunctions, viruses and cyber-attacks? Will we be able to retain autonomy and privacy in an age of computerized vehicles? Listen in to learn more.

Male Speaker 1: Brought to you by Toyota. Let's go places. Welcome to Forward Thinking.

Jonathan: Hello everyone. Welcome to Forward Thinking, the podcast. I am Jonathan Strickland.

Lauren: I'm Lauren Vogelbaum.

Joe: And I'm Joe McCormick.

Jonathan: And today we wanted to talk a bit about autonomous cars, those robo-cars of the future that are going to take us everywhere we want to go, no problem whatsoever, they're never going to melt down, they're never going to turn on us, they're never going to start running down Sarah Connor. Yeah, Joe, you seem to -

Joe: Well, should we explain a little bit what an autonomous car is first? What they are.

Jonathan: Sure, okay. An autonomous car, at least the general consensus, is that this is a vehicle that has technology that allows the car to navigate and drive through various landscapes without the need for a human being to actually manually control the vehicle. That's kind of the overall definition, I would say, of an autonomous car.

Joe: So you just hop in, do your crossword puzzle, and then you're at work.

Jonathan: Yeah, something like that. Just like the way most of us drive, as it turns out. No, that's kind of the idea.

Joe: With less screaming.

Lauren: Yeah, slightly fewer deaths planned.

Jonathan: Right. It's a goal that a lot of different companies are working toward. Google, of course, famously had their own autonomous car debuting on the roadways of California, but we've seen other vehicles kind of - well, other manufacturers, follow suit. I mean, Lexus -

Lauren: Quite a few companies have started to make them now, too.

Jonathan: Sure. Lexus has its own that it's working on, but there are others as well, and it's kind of interesting to see this development, but we know that there are people out there who have concerns, some of which I would say are very legitimate concerns, some of which may be a little bit more based on a misunderstanding of the technology, and we wanted to kind of talk about those concerns and sort of what the potential approach is to assuage fears. Joe, would you like to take on the role?

Joe: Yeah. My angry, confused, luddite Uncle Jed?

Jonathan: Is he the one who said he was shooting at some crude?

Joe: Yeah.

Jonathan: I guess he was shooting at some food and up from the ground came a - or up from the ground came a bubbling food, but that would just be gross. Okay, so Jed.

Joe: Yeah, well, I mean, I don't think Jed likes this idea.

Jonathan: Jed does not like the idea of an autonomous car.

Joe: No, it frightens and confuses him.

Lauren: Has he perhaps seen the movie Maximum Overdrive? Is he upset about this?

Joe: That's the thing, in the 1980's, he saw the Stephen King directed film, Maximum Overdrive, and he's got some concerns he'd like to confront you with before he's really convinced about the safety of this whole autonomous car deal. One of them, I'm sure Uncle Jed says, is, "I can't get my computer to do what I want half the time. It crashes every time I turn it on. I click on something on the Internet and it never works. Everything goes crazy. Is that going to happen to my car, and am I gonna crash into a telephone pole because I clicked on the wrong website?"

Jonathan: That's a legitimate fear for someone who has a lot of clicking going on whenever they're on the Internet.

Lauren: Right, sure, and part of the thing is that obviously you're not going to be visiting, perhaps, websites of ill repute on your car, so therefor there's slightly less danger of running into the same kinds of problems that you would run into on the internet in your car.

Joe: Well, let's make it a little more general. Just imagine Uncle Jed is generally concerned that something's going to go wrong with his autonomous car, that it's going to malfunction somehow, and this is going to lead to problems.

Jonathan: And that's a completely understandable fear. There's a couple of things, I think, that we can look at. One is that when it comes to a general purpose computer, like most of us have on our desks or that we carry around in a messenger bag or whatever, these computers have to do a lot of different things. They have to be able to handle different types of tasks. You're going to be loading on all kinds of software onto these. Sometimes pieces of software will conflict with one another, because when they were being designed, it wasn't designed on a machine that was also running X number of other programs. So, for example, if you have 20 programs on your computer and you're regularly running four of them, it may very well be that any one of those four would be fine on its own, but when you start running them together, they start to compete for resources, your computer starts to have trouble managing those resources over time, and then problems happen, right?

And your car is a much more specific piece of machinery. It's not a general-purpose device, and so the computers aboard cars are very specifically tuned to what they need to do, and they don't do other stuff, and that's, generally speaking, a pretty good thing. It makes them more reliable in the long run because there are fewer things that can interfere with the functioning of that device. So the likelihood of a full malfunction, the way you would experience on, say, a regular computer, is much lower on something that has that specific a purpose. On top of that, I think that we will have plenty of things that will warn us when something is not going well, and I don't think we're ever going to reach the point where manual control is no longer an option at all.

So, worst case scenario, you'll flip the switch from robo to me, and then you take over, but I really think that the likelihood of computer crashes becoming a common thing is not that high, and also, this is something that, whenever you take your car in to be serviced, I would imagine that's going to be a routine of getting your car serviced.

Lauren: Go ahead and defrag the hard drive.

Jonathan: Right. And, I mean, there are certain things that you will, we would expect to happen. Like, for instance, as improvements come for the software side of the autonomous car, because really, autonomous car is kind of like another computer in the sense that you've got the hardware and the software, but as improvements come along, then I would imagine there will be things like firmware updates. This is where a company will send out a kind of software that is very fundamental to the function of a particular device. You set his all the time in things like phones, gaming consoles, and even computers, desktops and laptops, can get firmware updates. I would see that happening, but I really don't think that the common crash that we experience in our desktop and laptop lives will be something that's going to plague us in a car setting.

Joe: And lots of cars already have micro controllers in them, right?

Jonathan: Oh no, no, no, they all do. I mean, pretty much every car that's been manufactured over the last couple of decades has had some forms of micro controllers in them. Some of them have fairly sophisticated computer systems in there, which, it's all meant to diagnose problems and to keep track of things, which is one of those things that people complain about, really, because in order for you to really know what's going on with your car as these get more and more complex, you have to really plug it into a computer, and not everyone has the capability of doing that, although we're starting to see some things like some cool things coming out for smartphones, where you can actually attach it to your smartphone and you plug -

Lauren: Oh that's great.

Jonathan: Yeah, you have that special proprietary cable, you plug it into your car, and then your smartphone tells you what's wrong. It's a good way of finding out if your mechanic is on the up and up.

Lauren: Yeah yeah, and also not having to waste that 2 hours of your life and however many dollars going into a mechanic just to see what's wrong.

Jonathan: So we already have computers in cars, it's just going to get more sophisticated, although I don't like taking this approach very frequently, because it's like saying, "Hey, I know you're saying the future is bad, but the present is bad too," because that's kind of a lame argument, but cars break down already. Stuff goes wrong with cars. Physical things in cars can break and wear down and stop working, particularly if you're not taking very good care of your car, but even if you think you are, things can go wrong.

Lauren: And hypothetically, if you've got more computers watching that kind of thing, that might help in the long run, because you might get to the point where your car can tell you, "Oh, this piece is running low. Oh this oil is running low. We need to do something about this before it breks.4

Jonathan: Yeah. For instance, my wife's car lets us know when the tires need to get more air in them, so it used to be, a few years ago, the way you would notice that is when you walk up to your car in the parking lot, you think, "Whoa. Uh oh."

Lauren: "I guess I can't drive."

Jonathan: "Yeah, I guess I need to get to the closest gas station and get some air in these tires."

Joe: So Uncle Jed has another concern, though.

Jonathan: Hit me Uncle Jed.

Joe: Well, Uncle Jed is also, he's a very sweet man, and every year he buys Aunt Ruth a birthday present.

Jonathan: That's very sweet of him.

Joe: But if he's got to get in an autonomous car that's some kind of computer and it hooks up to the internet, isn't everybody going to see exactly where he goes all the time, and note the store he goes to to get Aunt Ruth's birthday present, and they're all gonna gab to her, and she's gonna know what the present is before she gets it.

Lauren: So autonomous cars spoiling birthdays.

Jonathan: So essentially we're talking about a privacy issue, I think, if we want to be more general than that. So yeah, I can see where the concern is there. Now, I think a lot of these systems are going to have to have, built into them, privacy measures, because privacy is a huge issue for a lot of people, and I don't think that's going to go away. In fact, it's going to get more important as we get more involved with computers in our cars. I think that the potential solution for this is to do what Google says it does. I'm assuming that what Google says it does is what Google actually does. I don't work for Google. I don't see behind the curtain, so I don't know for sure, but I'm going to take them at their word.

Google's approach is to strip all the identifying information off of any particular vehicle when it's tracking things like traffic, so that way, as you drive down the street, your data is going to Google, so it knows how fast you're going. This is assuming you're using a Google Maps application on your smartphone or GPS device. So it knows that there is a vehicle going down a particular road at a particular speed, and then it extrapolates from that what the traffic conditions must be like on a particular road. I would imagine that most of our systems will have to have a similar thing in place. Now, what'll be interesting is to see how that pans out, because I think law enforcement would say, "Hey no, it'd be awesome if we could track where everyone was all of the time."

Lauren: Oh right, sure. Some of the gossip that I've heard about is that cars eventually are going to have little black boxes the same way that airplanes do. When you get into the car, you don't only use a key to get into the car, you use a personalized key that tells the car that you are the one driving it, for liability issues, for insurance, for traffic accidents, all that kind of stuff, and so it might have your own personal information coded in when you get into the car, and therefor not tell Aunt Ruth where you're going.

Jonathan: I could just imagine getting into the car and saying, "Take me to the last place you were before you came back home." Wow. Okay, now I've got to re-think my plans for the future of my travel. All right, but anyway, yeah, so some of these questions we can't answer immediately simply because we're not in that area, but I would imagine that as we build out these systems, that's something that we have to take into consideration, because Uncle Jed's not going to be the only guy to be concerned about this. People rightfully are protective of their privacy, and I think that's a healthy attitude.

Joe: Well, Uncle Jed's got one real final concern, and this maybe ties more into that scary movie even more than the other ones.

Jonathan: But not scary movie. Not that scary movie.

Joe: Maximum Overdrive. The documentary about the future of trucks.

Jonathan: Exactly. Autonomous machines

Lauren: Alien takeover of, right.

Jonathan: Soda machines chucking out cans at people.

Joe: Well, nobody wants that, but in the movie, I think it's, what is it, aliens take over our technology? What if, because Uncle Jed's heard about these hackers and he knows that there are these hackers out there. What if the hackers put a virus in his autonomous car?

Jonathan: Yeah, Uncle Jed, let me put your mind at ease. First of all, I think that getting access to a particular vehicle's computer will not be easy. The physical location of the computer, I would imagine, would be difficult to reach without specific kinds of tools. On top of that, reaching a car through some sort of wireless means would be somewhat problematic, I would imagine. In fact, I would be more worried about hackers targeting the underlying infrastructure that exists within, say, a city, than within an actual car. Targeting a specific car would be very tricky.

Lauren: Right, because these aren't going to be running all by themselves, they're going to be working with an entire internet of structures that is going to be helping them figure out where to go.

Jonathan: Yeah, if nothing else, you'll have mesh networks, which means that you will have a network that is composed of a certain number of vehicles and a certain place at a certain time, and that number is constantly changing as vehicles leave the road or enter the road, and this is a very complex system. It's difficult to even build, much less hack into, but I really think targeting a specific car is unrealistic, just like targeting a specific computer tends to be unrealistic. And a lot of the problems that we have with hackers getting access to people's computers has to do with things like downloading malware and installing it on your computer, which gives the opportunity for hackers to mess with you.

Lauren: Or giving someone your password, or something like that, or not changing the factory default password.

Jonathan: Right, right. Now when you're talking about a car, because of its specificity, because it's meant for a specific range of features, I don't imagine that you will be downloading stuff to your car to increase that. I can't imagine it being something that the user could easily do where, let's say that you think, "Oh, I want my car to go 20 miles per hour faster than what the factory setting allows, so I'm going to download the speed demon app.

Joe: Overclock your engine.

Jonathan: Yeah, I'm going to overclock as opposed to overdrive. So Maximum Overclock is what we should call this episode. But yeah, that's the idea I would say, is that it's such a specific use that I can't imagine that we're going to have the ability to download malware to our cars. So it's only if the source is corrupted, which means that that malware goes out to everybody, and because it would be such a high value target, I imagine that there would be a lot of security around those systems.

Lauren: Right, and you know, there's ways that people could screw with your car today, without having a fancy computer running everything that it does. Someone could come in and cut your brake line. Someone could mess with the traffic system in your county and screw up the traffic lights.

Joe: Just yank the stop signs out of the ground and carry them away.

Lauren: Exactly.

Jonathan: There's actually a lot of stuff that people could do to cause mayhem already.

Lauren: Again, that's not necessarily the best argument. Like, "Well, don't be scared of the future, because the present is terrifying."

Jonathan: Yeah, that's not necessarily the way to get Uncle Jed to sleep well at night, but no, it is true that really, there are going to be some challenges in the future, but the nice thing is that by acknowledging the fact that there are challenges and acknowledging the fact that there are potential worries, you can take those into consideration when you're building things out. It's not like this is a system that's hitting us tomorrow and we're all just going to have to adjust to it and then see how it shakes out. We are aware of these things before the systems are in place which, hopefully, means that we will be able to take that into consideration when we actually build everything out, and make it as safe as possible, which is really the goal, when you think about it, of autonomous cars. I've got just a couple of figures here.

We've actually seen a dramatic decline in fatalities in the United States due to car accidents over the last few decades, and it's mainly due to improvements in the way that vehicles are built and the way that laws have required us to do things like wear a seatbelt. But the decline has been pretty dramatic. Back in 1972, there were, according to the National Traffic Safety Administration, 54,589 fatalities in 1972 due to traffic accidents, and in 2011, it was 32,367, so more than a 20,000 person drop in those decades because of these. Now, think about that in terms of every traffic accident and how human error plays a part in that. Again, estimates range, but usually human error is said to be a factor in about 90 percent.

Joe: 95 even, is what I saw.

Lauren: Yeah, 85 to 95 are the numbers that I've seen.

Jonathan: Yeah, it ranges, again, depending on how you define it. Like, whether or not it was the sole contributor to an accident or whether it was part of the problem.

Joe: And then the really funny thing is, of those 95 percent who cause traffic accidents with their own human error, 75 percent of them think they're better than average drivers.

Jonathan: Right, yeah. Well, this is the same sort of problem we see with multi-taskers, right? There's very good evidence to show that multitasking means that your capacity to do any one of those multiple tasks goes down, but there's a tiny percentage of people who are actually capable multi-taskers. They're called super-taskers, and so two percent of the population are super-taskers. The other 98 percent believe they belong in the two percent.

Lauren: And are lying on their resumes.

Jonathan: Yeah. So, same sort of thing. If you've got around a 90 to 95 percent of all accidents are caused, in part, by human error, if you remove human error out of that, that number drops so low. I mean, think about that. That could affect everything not just from the fatalities, which would be amazing enough, but you wouldn't have to worry so much about - insurance rates could go down, because accidents become so rare. You're talking about the fact that you don't need to worry about insuring vehicles as much over time. Whether or not that actually would pan out, I don't know. That's sort of a business side thing, but it could happen, and also you don't worry about taking your baby out, your brand new car out, and getting it dinged on its first joy ride.

Lauren: Or your actual baby, I would imagine that many people would feel very much safer carrying precious cargo in the streets.

Jonathan: Yes. Robo-baby on board

Joe: I think Uncle Jed is about 84 percent convinced.

Jonathan: Okay, well, the good thing is we have some more time before robo cars become a thing that everyone is dealing with, so I'll keep working on Uncle Jed. And in the meantime, for all you listeners out there, if any of you have any suggestions for topics that we should look at, things that are going to be unfolding in the future, whether they're technology based or otherwise, I recommend you let us know. In fact, go to the Forward Thinking website, that's, and take a look. See the blog posts, the podcast, the video series that's up there, and let us know, what is it about the future that has you excited. We can't wait to hear from you.

Male Speaker 1: For more on this topic and the future of technology, visit Brought to you by Toyota. Let's go places.

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Duration: 20 minutes

Topics in this Podcast: driverless cars, Safety, cybersecurity, viruses, autonomous cars