Going ‘Old School’ Switching to Manual Override and Human Control

Commentary, Disruption, Eamonn Brosnan

Technology in cars has been steadily taking over more and more control from the driver. 100 years ago we started cars with a hand crank. 50 years ago we manually shifted the gears. 30 years ago we learned about threshold braking and how to pump our breaks to prevent going into a skid while trying to stop. 30 years ago we also had to keep our foot on the gas-pedal, even on the longest drives, in order to maintain speed. These days the only drivers who must use any of these skills are ones who do so by choice.

All of these technologies are standard on virtually any vehicle sold today.

Today, newer vehicles are showing up with automatic cruise control, which will allow you to remain on cruise control and maintain travel distance from the car ahead of you. They come equipped with lane departure sensors which help keep you within your lane in traffic. They come equipped with blind spot sensors to alert you when changing lanes and with reverse warning sensors and cameras to make backing up easier.

Eventually, in the very near future, there will be cars that remove the human component completely and essentially become better drivers than humans.

They are being tested today, this isn’t a hypothetical “cars of the future…”. This technology will eventually become standard, so now is the time to have a conversation about how it should be secured and how it should operate.

In the tech industry the one thing that Blackberry has been known and respected for was security. In that light it is reassuring to see them weighing in on the discussion about computer-driven, internet-connected, cars. Recently, they released a white paper with recommendations that are a promising start to the conversation around this emerging technology.

  • Ensure that products are only sourced from trusted suppliers with extensive supplementary testing to ensure quality.
  • Ensure that all components are isolated from each other so that if one is infected it won’t necessarily impact other components.
  • Constant validation and security testing to ensure safety.
  • Rapid responses to issues which arise and sharing of information between suppliers so that they can fix issues quickly together.
  • Constant maintenance and updates being handled regularly.

In 2015 Canada had 1858 deaths and 161,902 injuries in Automobile accidents. The US had even worse numbers that year, even allowing for their larger population, with 38,300 deaths and 4.4 million serious injuries.

Computer-driven cars, especially if we are in an environment with a city grid directing traffic and all cars are computer-controlled, would see a massive reduction in injury and death as well as much faster moving traffic. Rush hour traffic jams could be a thing of the past one day. However, there are some serious concerns around computer-driven cars, not least of which is the worry and danger of some malicious agent hacking into one or more cars and seizing control of them.

Given the issues around viruses and other various malicious code that are impacting our phones and computers, there is a real worry about such a thing happening with a car. If your computer gets breached the worst thing that can happen is identity theft (which is a pretty bad thing) but if your car gets breached it could kill you.

This is a serious concern, while Blackberry’s white paper is a good first step, their recommendations are more academic than pragmatic. The expectation that all of the major automakers would come together and agree upon a standard method of implementing hardware and software is quite optimistic, given that most drivers need to spend at least 5 minutes trying to figure out which level is the turn signal, which one controls the wipers, and even more time how to set the intermittent frequency on a new car.

Blackberry’s recommendations are bold but could benefit if they adopt a requirement that all computer-controlled vehicles must contain an override switch.

A mechanically-based override switch that cannot be disabled by any outside computer program, one that overrides all computer-controlled systems, and gives the operator direct control over steering, acceleration, and braking.

Even in the future, as we move to a completely grid-controlled systems, vehicles will be in constant communication and receiving directions from the grid, the vehicle must still have a manual override which also communicates with other vehicles indicating that the vehicle is under human control.

Software failure or malicious attack while travelling in our autonomous cars can be prevented by simply going “old school” and switching to manual override and human control.