It was the Car, not Me, Officer!

Self-driving cars do not interest me. Or to be precise, I have no desire to own or be in a self-driving car. I have dealt with Otto-Pilot and all its charms and quirks. Reading some of the “awkward owner” stories about cars with self-driving features, and some of the technical problems said cars have, put me right off owning a car with self-driving features. I prefer to be in as much control of my vehicle as possible.

[Before I go farther – “self-driving” cars, at this point in time, are not really autonomous. One problem is that people who use the vehicles act as if the cars are indeed self-driving, and tune out. Several crashes have happened with the purported driver in the back seat of the vehicle. The cars are not airplanes on auto-pilot, 5,000 feet above traffic, trees, and bridge abutments. But people call them self-driving, so I’ll call them self-driving.]

This applies to a lot of other things in life as well. Yes, I’m on the “control freak” side of the personality line. If I’m going to be using a piece of equipment, a tool, an appliance, I want to know how to default it down to the least amount of automation possible. There are times when it is better to watch technology do its thing, and times when human intervention and manual operation is better. But I want to be the one to make that call, not the device and its software package. As I said, I’ve worked with aviation autopilots. They are great devices – if you use them properly and when they work properly. They can reduce workload. They can also send it skyrocketing at the wrong moment. I want the default to be “me in charge.”

Again, control. And with control comes responsibility. How long before “self-driving” technology reaches the point where the human on board says, “I didn’t do anything, Officer, it was the car!” In a sense we’ve seen that already, with the fatal “self driving” car and pedestrian accident in Arizona. “It wasn’t me, it was the software.” “The gun just went off.” “The table saw just turned on,” (notwithstanding the fact that SOMEONE was leaning against the switch, talking to a second party.)

Responsibility. I think that’s what’s been bothering me a lot in the past years with all the automation in cars, and with legislation and some people’s Grand Plans. They all seek to remove control and responsibility from people. With responsibility comes maturity. I am responsible for my own protection. That means I have to be aware of my surroundings, check to see that the doors are locked, be prepared to run, hide, or fight as appropriate for the situation. I also have to be smart and responsible enough to avoid situations where there’s a high risk of having to run/hide/fight. It’s what adults are supposed to do, like paying the bills on time and showing up when and where we are required to, in order to get paid.

Lots and lots of the ideas floating down from the ivory tower and other rarified heights go the other way. “We’ll protect you from being offended.” “Teach men that it’s wrong to [bad thing] and all women will be able to go wherever and do whatever without fear.” “If only experts were in charge of [thing], no one could go wrong/the planet would heal/we’d all hold hands ans sing ‘Kumbyah’.” So very many of these wonderful ideas involve removing responsibility and control from John Q Public. That alone makes me twitch, all else aside.

If I’m not in control of myself, of my well-being and safety, who is? The courts in the US have ruled on several occasions that it is not the police. Their duty is to society, not to the individual. If they are able to help, great. If not, that’s not their job. I suspect that if/when the lawsuits about “self-driving” cars start, the courts will insist that responsibility remains with the human on board, unless there is a vehicle with no, zero, possibility of passenger involvement. Then it would be . . . The software designer? The programmer? The person who designed the road that confused the car’s sensors? The deity that sent the rain that messed up the stuff on the road that confused the car’s sensors? Likewise when people insist that “society is to blame for assaults/poverty/pollution from China affecting the air at the Grand Canyon/what have you. What society? Who in society? Who is in control of society?

People without control or responsibility for anything at all in their lives are called children, or the severely mentally retarded or insane. They cannot have responsibility, for reasons far outside their control. That should change over time for children as they grow older and are given more duties and privileges. Granted, small children don’t always want to accept responsibility. “The cat broke the lamp,” says the toddler who pulled the lamp off the table and is still holding the cord in her hands. “Society made me burn the store down/beat my girlfriend/slash her for disrespecting me.”

I want to be in control. This is not always possible, which is why I spend a lot of time reminding myself that I need to be flexible when the world ignores my pleas for order and predictability. But being in control means accepting responsibility. Responsibility is hard some times. It means working so that I understand aircraft systems, or how some gizmo on my pickup works, or how to kill the power to a table saw or router (carpentry type) if things go all Dade County. It means being willing and able to defend myself if I’m not able to avoid trouble.

It means I will be very, very far down the list of buyers for “self-driving” cars.

20 thoughts on “It was the Car, not Me, Officer!

  1. I’m mostly familiar with vehicles with “smart” machine-vision cruise control and some form of lane keeping, either warning or nudging. The two I’m most familiar with are utterly defeated by snowpacked roads, but when they work, they help. I did a handful of long road trips (Left Coast to Midwest and back), all but one without even basic cruise control, and the smarter versions definitely make road trips a bit easier. (I did a lot of cross-Cascades trips for eye procedures and followups. The smart cruise control helped make up for the fact that many of the trips were with one eye down for maintenance.)

    With respect to defaults, the “nudge” setting on the one vehicle is off until it’s turned on, and it has a discrete indication/disables itself when it knows it can’t do the job. The older one mistakes shiny ruts for lane markings, so is medium useless when the road it wet. The newer one is a little bit better, and it is completely disabled below 45 mph.

  2. An interesting example of a ground-vehicle accident caused by excessive reliance on automation was the case of Washington Metrorail train T-111, which I wrote about here:

    My summary was that :

    In effect, Metro had established the following decision-making priority levels:

    *The judgment of the individual actually on the train, and with a direct view of the situation, was less to be counted on than…

    *The judgment of the controllers and supervisors at the OCC in downtown DC…BUT the judgment of these individuals, who were not geographically present on the train but were involved in the situation in real time, was less to be counted on than…

    *The judgment of the designers of the control system and the Metro operating policies…who, by the very nature of their work, could not be aware of the specific context of an individual situation.

  3. I find myself why there is such a big push for “self driving” cars and why there is so little talk of safety and redundancy requirements…
    With few exceptions, the manufacturers have little experience with hardware and NO experience with life safety/ life critical hardware.

    I have used the ‘assist’ features that RC mentions above; I notice that when driving a car with them I quickly stop thinking about checking blind spots, using the mirror, etc. I have a friend who got his license in 2019; he was the only one in his class that learned to park using mirrors; everybody else learned using a backup camera and sensors.

    These sensors can and WILL fail – what happens when the driver doesn’t know how to drive without them? Or is the vehicle CANNOT be driven without them? For example, there are manufacturers pushing for permission to use cameras instead of side mirrors to increase gas mileage – but if the cameras break, the car is undriveable (and surely pricey to fix).

    Unfortunately, we are soon going to find out… new cars are now mandated to have these “features” on them and by 2023 safety experts claim it will be “impossible” to have an accident because of these new “features”… This reminds me of recent airplane crashes that happened because the crew is taught to fly the computer and when the computer messed up, they didn’t know enough to take over and safely land the plane…
    In some cars, features can be turned off; in others they can’t be…I will be avoiding those features that can’t be turned off as long as I can…

    • We have software companies, who do not understand automobiles, and automobile companies, who do not understand hardware or software, and none of these companies has a corporate culture tightly focused on electrical engineering and computer science as applied to things critical to human welfare. The software companies are perpetually patching buggy software, and ‘throw neural networks at it’. The automobile companies are stump broke by the legislatures, and have no clue how to architect the hardware and software so it can be secure and maintained. They are borrowing ideas from each other without having the institutional wisdom to know why the features were designed the way they are. Then there is Tesla, and Musk has clearly not put together an organization that can tell him to hold his horses, and wait until they understand how to architect a safe system.

  4. “Good morning Passengers. You are flying on the first airliner with True Auto-pilot without the need for human pilots. Don’t be concerned. Nothing can go wrong go wrong go wrong…..” 😈

    • There’s a story —possibly true, possibly not— about what happened to an Airbus when the turbulence it encountered (Jet Stream clear air type) exceeded the programmed limits for turbulence. The pilots had to wait for the system to reboot before they could deal with the problem. Now, given the design philosophy behind Airbus, and some of the early teething pains with the software, I can very easily imagine that exact thing happening.

  5. Removing mirrors to increase fuel mileage? Which decimal place does this appear at, for open highway? Repair cost when it or the wires break will far exceed any fuel ‘savings’, which are dependent on driving at constant speeds to begin with. Sounds like a pinto bean dropped into the navy beans.

    • A neighbor’s tailgate got graunched by a forklift driver in one of those Oh Shit moments. Between the backup camera and the automagic gate opening electrics, it was going to cost $2500 to repair/replace. Not sure of final cost, but it took about 4 weeks before he had a tailgate on the truck.

  6. I don’t like automatic transmissions, and actively resent that I had to take my car to a mechanic to replace the bloody serpentine belt (I couldn’t figure out the trick to access it. Used the internet to see what I was missing. Sequence started: remove bumper, remove radiator, remove left headlight…)

    • Yikes! I had to do a ’98 Ranger and an ’03 Silverado. I think both had square 3/8″ holes in the tensioning pulley that I could use a breaker bar on. Use one hand to tweak the pulley, the other to guide the belt, and the gripping to tweak any snags. I didn’t say it was *easy*, just doable.

      OTOH, I had to replace a) the never-properly-working thermostat in the Ranger, and the b) heater door* ** when the control system broke the keyed pin. The first was a bit of a pain, the second had me wanting to find the designer of the freaking system. That would have been a dark-alley design review.

      (*) It controls the flow from the heater vs fresh air/air conditioning. We had hot air all the time. In May.
      (**) The heater door is cycled to its limits when the engine is started. With time and Heinlein’s “bad luck”, the actuator will break the door hinge. The official repair is north of $1000, while the aftermarket repair entailed cutting a hole in the heater’s air box, installing a new door, and taping the hole shut. Cost was low ($25-50, maybe), but it took a fair amount of time, especially working in tight quarters, partly by touch. Glad I was doing it alone; the language was foul.

  7. Yeah, if I let myself get started raving on the self-driving car push, I will find myself writing you an email, and I’ve come so close to calming down, and ignoring politics for the rest of the day.

    At least the boog means that we can hang the moronic officials pushing this, and ban the tech to make people regret doing such a bad job of developing it, and of pushing back against the legislatures until it can be safely developed. and we can get rid of CAFe.

  8. Also, big tech execs like self driving cars. The most morally appropriate answer is to murder them by way of hacking their cars.

  9. Not going there either. I’ve dealt with ‘enough’ autonomous systems to know just how badly they can screw up things. I’ll take my chances with ME in control.

  10. Truly self-driving cars will be a great help to the elderly, but we’re far from it. And further because the people who are spec’ing behaviors are ignorant of the circumstances of use, and do not consider that they, in their comfy offices, cannot anticipate every circumstance of use.

  11. The computer and SW people who are writing the specs and code are also woefully ignorant of the natural and manmade conditions that their sensors must operate in, correctly, 99% of the time. Multi-state Kalman filters and integrated sensors only work if you understand where, why, and how each and any sensor can get knocked out or given spurious inputs. Nor do they think well about vibration and jolt induced by imperfect roads, which can break or unseat sensors, wires. I’ve already had that happen with other stuff: “X was loose. We tightened the connection and reset.”

    Suggested test areas: MI, NJ, PA, NY, MA in winter (October through April). They get to ride in the passenger seat.

    • Given how badly the interstates are getting torn up around here (all traffic diverted to two lanes in order to replace all the numerous overpasses. That’s a lot of pounding and poundage) as well as the streets, the Texas Panhandle might be another good test region. Although we don’t have as many deer to add nocturnal excitement the way y’all do back east and farther out west.

  12. Snow belt in winter. See how it deals with heavy wet snow when the heater refuses to put ‘heat’ on the windshield without bringing cold air in and then running it through the A/C before ‘heating’ it.

    NJ in a rainy evening, two lanes each way, no divider, no streetlight, with the headlights on the federal mandate to light the centerline–in other words, to blind the oncoming driver while starving the road edge of light.

    Heavy fog in mountains.

    Manhattan traffic, where the pedestrian mob will freeze traffic if they can, blocking drivers from turning or entering driveways.

    And so on, and so on …

  13. Unpaved. Snow over ice. Blizzard with ten feet visibility. Smoke with ten feet visibility. Fire on both sides of road. Connections down, due to manmade or natural causes.

    I wonder if they’ve even thought about unsafe to drive conditions where stopping driving is deadly?

  14. No, they haven’t.

    Last I heard, Google’s map and traffic database work is done in NYC … but almost everyone who works there commutes by mass transit. It took three tries (with me prompting) for them to get the BQE/Gowanus/Brooklyn-Battery tunnel interchange ramps right. Aparently none of them ever drove through to see what connects to what.

    (40.679581,-74.002832 , ramp shown in grey below everything else.)

    • Early in the Mapquest days, I let it suggest a route from our rural home to a Costco west of the Cascades. We already knew the route, 105 miles on a mix of state highway and county roads.

      Mapquest first suggested the shortest route to a state highway (in the opposite direction from our destination), and once it found 4 lane highways, stuck with that. It told me to drive down to California to pick up I-5, then back north. Only 200 miles. If they had even suggested staying on the first state highway, it would have made for a 120 mile trip, but nooooo.

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