Should we go back to mechanical systems to ensure the safety of cars?

A reporter asked me yesterday whether there are any ‘independent’ organizations or groups that test the safety of car electronics.   An independent entity would be one that does not work with any carmaker, automotive supplier or plaintiffs in a car accident.   Unfortunately, I had to answer ‘No’.   The reason for this absence of independent entities who can offer “unbiased” feedback is simple: how will they support themselves?   Automotive electronics is complex; one needs the services of experts in mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, control systems, electronics hardware, embedded real-time software, fault-tolerant systems, sensors, actuators,  EMI and ESD.  There are hundreds of models sold *every* year.   The cost of sustaining such a testing operation will be enormous, and unless one has a service contract with one of the automakers, or looking at specific issues for a plaintiff, it is very difficult to sustain the operation.  Let’s look at the landscape and how we can help the situation.

Conflicts of Interest All-Around?

Three professors working in the context of automobiles come to mind.  I, as at least some of you know from my home-page, have a working relationship with GM.  Prof. Gerdes of Stanford University, who spoke at the Toyota conference rebutting Dr. Gilbert’s experiments, runs a lab that is partly funded by Toyota.  Dr. Gilbert of SIU himself works with SRS, which represents plaintiffs, a fact that was emphasized during a segment of the congressional hearing last month.      While I can certainly understand it if you are skeptical, I would add that most academics and researchers including the ones mentioned above are interested in problem-solving, creating solutions that help people, and make the world a better/safer place to live in.   Like everybody else, we will have our biases and what one might be considered constructive by one could be construed as negative by another.    If we did not believe in technology and its promise, we would be doing something else.   The grilling of Dr. Gilbert at the congressional hearing was by a House member whose district includes a Toyota plant.  So, it is in his self-interest to defend Toyota.

Meanwhile, Toyota itself has a vested interest in not identify/revealing any defects thanks to the fear of liabilities that open up.  They clearly have a large number of lawyers on their payroll defending their cases and delaying them as the situation warrants in their judgment.  They clearly have a core business need to protect their reputation, business image, sales and market share.   De-emphasizing negatives is part of a marketeer’s job and an imperative of a business executive.  Finally, automotive suppliers may not have deep pockets and try to push liability back to the automakers (witness the tussle between CTS and Toyota last month).

Independent Entities?

The best entities one can think of in this category would perhaps be consumer organizations like Consumer Reports and government agencies like NHTSA.   Consumer Reports does not accept advertisements and have been able to maintain independence.  But, despite their popular recommendations in the automotive sector, they have to go far beyond this sector to be able to sustain themselves.  Also, they serve the consumer perspective (“we used it, found this aspect to be good, think that other aspect is bad; we do surveys and give you a nice, credible compilation and recommendation”) but do not go into the nitty-gritty that is needed for looking at electronics in depth.    NHTSA has about 600 employees and  a budget of about $600M.  They collect and investigate complaints through their Office of Defects Investigation.   But as an arm of the government, they can be pulled in different directions and also seem to be reactive to complaints.   Many have argued that NHTSA really needs to bring in electronics experts as automobiles have moved from the mechanical area to electro-mechanical and now are increasingly electronics-driven.

Time to become Luddites?

Given that complex systems can fail occasionally, does it mean that we should go back to “simpler” mechanical systems in automobiles?  Electronics are here to stay in automobiles, trains, airplanes, helicopters, ships, elevators, HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) systems, electric utilities, nuclear power plants, health care,robots, and manufacturing, just to name a few.  In the transportation sector, electronics is what leads to significantly better mileage, bigger horsepower, lower emissions, higher efficiency and stronger safety (in terms of airbags, traction control, slid control, anti-lock brakes, pre-tensioning when accidents become imminent and lane departure warnings).   Even sophisticated cruise control (like adaptive cruise control), which leads to less fatigue, and anti-theft mechanisms are enabled by electronics.   All these *reduce* accidents or their intensity even as features proliferate while keeping costs relatively low. Future features will monitor when drivers become drowsy, when there are vehicles in your blind spot(s), warn you of dangers/traffic jams ahead, tell you when the traffic light ahead is about to turn red, and alert you that you are driving too fast for the current conditions.  These benefits are the direct result of sophisticated electronics.

If the failure rate is non-zero, stupid, why use technology?

Good question.   The answer is simply “The benefits outweigh the risks”.   Think vaccines.   There are always some people who die or have severe allergic reactions to vaccines.   Should we therefore all stop taking vaccines or stop working on new vaccines?  Most would say, no.   Do the positive impact of vaccines outweigh the negative consequences of vaccines?  Of course.   As long as we keep the risks small enough and the benefits clear, vaccines will be around for a long time.  The same applies to electronics in safety-critical systems.   Occasionally, things will go wrong and as long as that failure ratio is small (say compared to somebody getting hit by lightning), we will live with the complexities and uncertainties of life.

What should we do to ensure technology in life-critical systems is safe?

Thought you would never ask 😉   Building new technologies with new capabilities take time and money.   Consider space exploration (NASA), new defense technologies (DARPA), energy technologies (ARPA-E), homeland security technologies (HS-ARPA) and basic science/engineering (NSF).   Substantial investments in the agencies listed within parentheses help move technology progress along these frontiers.   The private sector (the research labs of Microsoft, IBM, HP, Intel, United Technologies, Honeywell, all automakers, GE, Siemens, NEC, Fujitsu, Mitsubishi, Sony, Samsung, etc.)  also funds its own research but often, by necessity, focusing on their individual market sectors.    They also have to change to reflect market realities – for example, the golden years of Bell Labs seem to be well-behind it.   In many cases, companies and non-profit organizations have also received and continue to receive significant funding from government agencies (like DARPA, DoT and ARPA-E).     University research is mostly funded by government agencies as well.

To make a long story short, I do not argue that a new agency must be created for the automotive sector.   DoT and NHTSA already exist – the government should initiate some substantial research programs on the safety of electronics-based systems.  Fund universities, non-profit organizations and company consortia (and combinations of these in teams).  These programs can study how safer designs can be built for transportation systems, while not losing sight of affordability and maintenance.    The basic technologies that will be created will be useful in all safety-critical systems (like in the sectors mentioned above) – these are called “cyber-physical” systems, where cyber components of computing interact with physical elements in the real world.   Seems self-serving?  Perhaps, but researchers and scientists do have a useful role to play in society.  Without them, technology does not progress.   In this context, they can help pave the path for the best industry practices of the future.   Lead, and not just react.

Next, let’s go back to the vaccine analogy.  There exists an insurance fund that compensates victims who react negatively to vaccines.   The automotive industry could look into a similar arrangement.   The merits of doing this completely in the private sector or run completely by a government agency can be vigorously debated.   (Think insurance fees paid by the banks to the FDIC, for example).    Insurance rates can go up if the vehicles from a carmaker have more accidents, and vice-versa.   People may eventually seek vehicles from carmakers who are members of such a consortium, just like you want to put your money in an FDIC-insured institution.   (The fund cannot be liable for accidents due to human error – but event data recorders aka ‘black boxes’ which will be in all new models around 2012 can be used to separate the human component from system flaws).

Thirdly, try to define a specialized version of crowd-sourcing. In the current Toyota situation, it is very difficult for an external entity to find any flaws in Toyota electronics without having access to their large number of internal documents, test results, design/test engineers, system design details and software code.     Put a strict non-disclosure agreement in place, and form “Red Teams” of external experts to pore into the depths of the system.   More often that not, they will find something that could be going wrong.    You are not discrediting your engineers; sometimes, when you have your nose too close to the grindstone, the bigger picture loses its clarity.   External experts bring a fresh view and can ask out-of-the-box, even “stupid”, questions that will end up pointing to the path towards an answer.   Many large projects use this approach after the projects run into trouble.   Immense returns can be obtained from a well-selected/well-paid team.   Shuffle teams over the years to reduce staleness and stagnation.

If even some of these suggestions are adopted,  electronics, as they become an integral part of the fabric of society, will grow into our formidable ally.  Most importantly, electronics will be perceived as being on their side by the public.


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