AI in Self-Driving Cars: Deep Learning Deciding Life or Death

AI in self-driving cars

Creating a safer, less congested and ecologically friendly world is the main goal of driverless vehicles, and artificial intelligence or AI in self-driving cars is the brain behind making these modern marvels work. In order to get these automobiles on the road, the global community is doing its best to support autonomous car development. The current U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao, held a press conference at the University of Michigan’s, MCity in late September to announce the simplification of restrictions on autonomous vehicle R&D and testing. A bill addressing how this will be done is currently making its way through the U.S. Senate and House. Europe is already testing autonomous shuttles in some cities — driverless public transport has long been seen as a natural fit for the technology — and companies like nuTonomy in Singapore and Uber in various cities of the United States have been trying out autonomous taxis and ride-hailing options on public roads for a few years now. The inputs and outputs AI has to access just for the normal operation of a vehicle on everyday roads are vast and complex but add to that the unique decisions of life and death put on the neural networks, and innovators are seeking ways to make those less polarizing. After all, as much as many look forward to a day when the driverless car makes traffic jams and automobile collisions a thing of the past, one issue keeps coming to the surface: what happens when an unmanned vehicle is faced with whom to save in an impending accident?

The Spock conundrum of logic vs. emotion

left and right brain assimilating the info provided for AI

Left Brain (logic) vs. Right Brain (emotion)

Up until recently — and in some cases still — self-driving cars have been seen as a thing of fantasy and science fiction. To that point, sci-fi stories have long used logic to make choices that emotion may very well undermine. Logic-based life-forms and sentient beings tend to react in ways that are seemingly counter to humans, but often end up being about salvation rather than destruction. The purpose, obviously, is to show the human side of a machine or emotionless entity in a way that gets the audience to embrace the character. However, when you break down those decisions, you realize that those choices are logical, even as they tug at our emotions.

In the classic film, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan, as the being synonymous with bridging the gap between emotion and logic sacrifices himself for the crew, Spock opines, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few… or the one.” It is a logical choice when faced with such a situation — one or few lives as opposed to masses. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s reformed terminator in Terminator 2: Judgement Day concluding that sacrificing himself to save a race he was once programmed to destroy comes from the deep learning of his neural networks. He has come to understand and care about them, and sacrifice to save is the logical choice so that the needs of the many are met. K-2SO’s going out in a hail of laser cannon fire in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story so that Jyn and Cassian get the plans to the Death Star, thereby saving billions of lives in the process is, also, a logical decision made by another sentient being. And the doe-eyed, heartstring-pulling WALL-E hitching an unscheduled ride on the spaceship that has taken his beloved and suddenly catatonic EVE (EE-vah) only to discover the entire race of the planet he’s been cleaning up is being relegated to unhealthy, fat and forever lost in space drones. His giving himself over to losing his learned humanity to save them all is, once again, the logical choice. One trash-gathering robot v. the whole human race? No question.

Therefore, programming the AI in self-driving cars to react in a way that serves the greater good makes sense, right? However, road collisions are frequently one-to-one situations. They rarely enter the “needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” category, at least on the surface. It’s that grey area that adds an extra dimension to coming to a conclusion that makes the most sense. For human drivers, this is a moral dilemma that is only realized after much thought — weighing the cause and effect — and consideration — the emotional burden of a decision that leads to possible tragedy. The “moral” only comes into play when a person is operating a vehicle, but when artificial intelligence in self-driving cars accesses digital programming to determine what to do, deep learning comes in. Understood. Except, what is deep learning?

Teaching machines how to learn

deep learning in a neural network

Deep learning basically takes massive amounts of data, layering it upon each other to build conclusions that lead to a human-like recognition of what something as abstract as an image or sound actually is for a machine. The “deep” comes from how, over time, the levels of information gathered and how it experiences this data leads to it learning more about what it is gathering, allowing the AI to correct itself and be better at recognizing and, therefore, reacting to the input appropriately. Correcting its own mistakes, just like you and me.

Heady stuff, right? Well, these are exceptional amounts of data being assimilated, and an amazing capability that is pushing automakers and tech giants closer to creating truly effective driverless solutions. HOWEVER, it still doesn’t answer the question: what happens when a machine is faced with who lives and who dies on the road?

a car stopping for a pedestrian

Here’s the dilemma—and one we discussed in our Child Safety article: You’re in your self-driving car, barrelling happily down the street when a pedestrian runs out. On one side is oncoming traffic, the other a sheer cliff. What do you do? If you, a human, were driving, many people say they would go off the cliff, hoping to miss the pedestrian AND the many in oncoming traffic. But, if there is no one behind your wheel, if you’re not manning it, the AI in self-driving cars kicks in and makes the decision for you. And per automakers, that decision is to save the passenger in the vehicle, not the people on the road. What would be a big “Whoa!” moment that you will live with for the rest of your life is not so for something like NVIDIA’s Drive PX. Because AI in self-driving cars doesn’t have the ability to emotionalize things, it will never wake-up in the middle of the night, sweating about the choice it makes forever. And because of this lack of a moral dilemma or ethical consideration, AI in self-driving cars is basing the decision on algorithms and probabilities, patterns of recognition that feed deep learning, not emotion. And how is all of that processing getting artificial intelligence to the right decision?

Good question. Because, when you think of it, that whole “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” is flipped in a driverless world. It becomes, “the needs of the ones in the car outweigh the needs of the bunches out there on the street.” It’s a choice, sure, but is it a truly logical one?

The reasoning power of AI in self-driving cars

How AI in self-driving cars may react and see things

Before we go into what kind of information artificial intelligence is taking in to help it decide who lives and who dies, perhaps we can play a bit with what we, the humans, do with the inputs we’re given.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) worked on a self-driving car project that included considering this dilemma and created a site that allows people to test what they would do in these potential crash situations. As you move through the different scenarios, it gets harder and harder to decide what is “right,” even to the point that you wonder if there is any “right” in these instances. And if we, as thinking humans, can’t figure out what’s the right thing to do, how does AI in self-driving cars? By taking the emotional connection to the problem out of the equation and using algorithms feeding deep learning, autonomous vehicles are able to do what they need to do in order to get from Point A to Point B, efficiently and seamlessly. Collateral damage may very well be something with which to contend, but, as automakers have made clear, the technology behind each driverless car is created to manage slowing down, averting, braking in enough time to avoid loss of life and catastrophic auto accidents.

However, it’s still a rather unique “moral” problem. From ethicist Philippa Foot to philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson and beyond, figuring out how to address this ethical issue has been a challenge. Everything about the Trolley Dilemma is based upon a series of factors you may never face. The world is moving forward with autonomous vehicles and the reality of actually having the AI in self-driving cars use its neural network to make a decision that is beyond passenger control is on the horizon. An example of a supplier of this technology is Drive PX, Jen-Hsun Huang’s company, NVIDIA’s solution offering small and large options for making a vehicle’s brain self-driving. That something like this is now available makes understanding the mechanism and reasoning behind such choices — deep learning — more pressing.

algorithm on AI in Self-Driving

Algorithm image by Docurbs via Wikimedia Commons

Machine learning, the algorithm way

AI in self-driving cars becomes smarter thanks to algorithms. But what exactly are these? And how do they learn or contribute to the “smartness” of your car?

An algorithm is comprised of inputs that prompt specific outputs. It’s a series of bits of information fed into a centralized mechanical brain that tell that brain how to take that INPUT and create actionable OUTPUT to initiate an appropriate response. An algorithm is likened to a recipe—the ingredients being the inputs and the meal the outputs. It’s a helpful tool in the world of machine learning, and in the case of AI in self-driving cars, a huge influence on creating a safer, seamless experience.

How that information used to create these algorithms is truly assimilated and accessed by human beings is a concern. An example given in the article “Why AI Makes It Hard to Prove That Self-Driving Cars Are Safe” by Andrew Silver poses the worry over what is being considered and what isn’t:  “Imagine if you test drive your self-driving car and want it to learn how to avoid pedestrians. So you have people in orange safety shirts stand around and you let the car loose. It might be training to recognize hands, arms, and legs—or maybe it’s training to recognize an orange shirt.”

Because algorithms use statistics to define results, they have the potential to put in or take out specific information to come to a conclusion. This incompleteness leads to a familiarity that, in instances like this, can breed danger, creating limitations. That type of rote learning can mean something as simple as getting to know a certain area of town really well while not understanding other parts at all. This would make successfully navigating those alternative roads, street signs and pedestrian interactions virtually impossible.

Difference between Traditional Modeling and Machine Learning. Image from ZEISS International

There are two unique types of algorithms used to make AI in self-driving cars effective: Computer Vision and Machine Learning. Computer Vision algorithm is the more traditional form that uses a cascading sort of learning process with encoded programming that leads to a predicted result. The newer, more innovative and precise Machine Learning algorithm, also known as deep neural networks, goes beyond basic codes and uses sample data to “learn” and assume results on what it has yet to experience, thereby broadening its parameters of output. In the case of deep learning, the data accumulated to feed those decisions go into something called a “black box.” It holds all of that information so it can be accessed and used by the machine’s brain. However, the actual process of the inputs leading to the outputs is so intensive, comprehending what led to that decision is beyond human thought. This means that should the system react incorrectly, it’s virtually impossible for a person to take all that’s been gathered in the black box and determine what caused the wrong decision. And if they can’t figure that out, they won’t be able to fix the actual process that led to that conclusion so it won’t happen again.

AI in self-driving car as the vehicle sees it

Introduce into that deciding who on the street to save in case of an altercation. If the mechanical brain of the autonomous vehicle has input probabilities that only have a finite number of outcomes and finds itself faced with one that has never been encountered before, how does it make the decision? It pulls from what it knows, adjusting to the situation as best it can with the information it’s been given. Much like humans, actually, however with a more logical and detached view that allows that car to react in a way that protects its passenger above all else. Simple, straightforward and unfailing. Because that whole idea of “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” has a lot of deep layers. Whose many? What few? And how many are affected if that few — or one — is lost? It goes on and on and on until, honestly, some sort of stance needs to be made and just as the MIT project shows, figuring out a clean, clear choice when there are so many variables involved is virtually impossible. For a machine, picking a lane comes without any baggage. But for the human at the effect of that decision? It is a weight far greater than anything a machine can comprehend. The capacity for understanding flips — people know there is sacrifice and know the outcome of that brings with it pain and confusion that must be bore. Machines only act and as much as they may or may not learn from their action, they will never feel the enormity of it.

An enduring question

It is a given that humans are fallible. There is enough data to warrant a look at the high cost of human error when it comes to driving motor cars. Something Silicon Valley is also learning through its testing — from companies like Uber to Waymo and beyond — is that people are also detrimental to a self-driving car project — the bulk of autonomous car accidents are due to human intervention. And studies have shown that machines react much faster than a man or woman ever could. But if the AI in self-driving cars isn’t sure what it’s reacting to or how it’s supposed to react, is it even possible for it to take action at all, let alone appropriate action?

where AI in self-driving cars is taking shape

A view of Silicon Valley at dusk

It’s a unique conundrum, surely, and there are no easy answers in any of this. And, so, as these various Silicon Valley giants and automakers discuss, confer, and keep coming up with such technologies as Jen-Hsun Huang’s Drive PX, deep learning of algorithms, and neural networks in general, the technology gets smarter, but the questions get harder.

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Zero-Emission Vehicles: Golden State Goes All In

an zero-emission vehicle getting charged up

Per a recent study of data collected between 2013-2015 by the American Lung Association, the Golden State is the dirtiest state in the union with six of the top ten worst cities on the list located on the west coast. With more cars per capita than some countries — approximately 749 automobiles per thousand residents — it’s no wonder that California consistently pushes to lower its carbon footprint. It was the impetus for former Governor Ronald Reagan and his administration to create the California Air Resources Board (CARB) in 1967. The legacy to further support the goal of clean air and healthy living in the region lives on as shown by Governor Jerry Brown recently signing 12 bills to further strengthen California’s near-zero and zero-emission vehicle or ZEV markets.

Strengthening the rules of the zero-emission on the road

These bills cover a broad, yet clean energy focused spectrum — dedicated, on-street public parking spaces for charging a parked electric car, extending access to high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes for certain clean alternative fuel vehicles, a clean-car program to help low-income residents replace their high-polluting cars with zero-emission vehicles, and more. A sweeping bill — SB 498 sponsored by Senator Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) —  raises the requirement for the state’s light-duty vehicle fleet to become zero-emission from the current 25 percent by 2020 to 50 percent or more by 2025. Each one of the new bills pushes for more effective and active ZEV support to get the state to a cleaner, healthier place, and move it off of that list of being the dirtiest.

Assisting the greening of commercial fleets

heavy-duty trucks go zero-emission

Heavy-duty vehicles were also addressed in the bills. Commercial automobiles in general and the greenhouse gas they generate have been a subject of much discussion across the country for years. FedEx’s commitment to clean energy and utilizing alternative fuel cells in its heavy-duty trucks have been breakthroughs in support of battling climate change. This “new normal” the delivery giant has successfully established for itself is one that other commercial companies are starting to see as one they can embrace. Bills AB 739 and AB 1073 both support that transformation by specifically dealing with ways to reduce carbon emissions associated with heavy-duty trucks and vehicles. AB 739, drafted by Assemblymember Ed Chau (D-Monterey Park), will require that at least 15 percent of specific newly purchased state heavy-duty vehicles be ZEV starting in 2025 and 30 percent or more beginning in 2030. AB 1073, drafted by Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia (D-Coachella), extends a current requirement to fund the early deployment of clean heavy-duty trucks. This last is part of California’s existing Clean Truck, Bus, and Off-Road Vehicle program.

The bills intentionally do not call out any specific type of clean energy automobile, such as the plug-in hybrid or electric vehicle. By targeting the near-zero or full ZEV market, legislation is able to cover a broad range of alternative fuel cell cars that will help stem greenhouse gas issues on a variety of levels. These zero-emission options include the plug-in electric vehicle, the plug-in hybrid electric car, hydrogen fuel cells, natural gas — basically, anything that burns clean energy and won’t add to the greenhouse gas problem.

Governor Brown’s response to concerns about the effects on the state’s residents and environment from climate change came on the heels of the head of the EPA announcing the scrapping of the Clean Power Plan. California has long considered getting rid of its petroleum cars, with the local government putting together plans for all new cars to be zero-emission only by 2050. This total ban on gasoline engines joins remaining part of the Paris Agreement even as the current administration considers pulling out as clear signs of the state’s commitment to its near-zero and zero-emission future. These green vehicle initiatives are nothing new in California, as mentioned, but strengthening them joins support of autonomous car R&D as a way to make ground transport safer, cleaner and more efficient.

Self-driving not to be outdone

autonomous vehicles get comeuppance via DMV

Following the governor’s signing of new zero-emission initiatives, the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) released revisions to its autonomous vehicle regulations. The move supports the recent Department of Transportation (DOT) announcement of the loosening of restrictions and requirements for driverless auto testing on public roads and development. There have been rules in place for autonomous vehicles since 2014 in the state with 42 companies currently allowed to test their cars on West Coast roads. This welcoming atmosphere is making California a haven for automakers seeking to test and expand their self-driving capabilities, and grow the technology into a viable business that can finally be put to practical use on the road.

A focus on saving lives

Sacramento makes ZEV easier

Creating innovative legislation to further support stemming greenhouse gas emission, addressing climate change to establish a cleaner, healthier future in the state, and setting forth clearer laws to support the development and testing of autonomous vehicles on the roads are all part of California’s desire to make its state that much safer for its residents. The electric vehicle, plug-in hybrid, plug-in electric vehicle and other alternative fuel cell technologies are sought to be the norm, not the exception on West Coast roads sooner rather than later. This also includes incorporating a more equitable and accessible ground for testing and growing the autonomous vehicle market in the Golden State. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how fast the rest of the nation follows suit. California consistently sets a certain drumbeat for environmental and technological innovation, and these recent changes certainly continue that trend.

But no matter how the rest of the nation — or the world — reacts, California remains steadfast in its mission to clean up and innovate ground travel at home. Both the new zero-emission legislation and the DMV’s autonomous vehicle changes combine to move it out of the position of being the dirtiest state and among the most congested to one where California residents can breathe and move around easier, and are assured of a comfortable, efficient and safe journey in whatever form of transportation they choose.


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da Vinci’s Self-Propelled Cart: A Legacy of Autonomy

da vinci's self-propelled cart brought to life

Leonardo da Vinci’s self-propelled cart on display

The renaissance period is considered one of the most pivotal and culturally transformative times in history. It is 400 years of re-birth — the actual meaning of the word “re-naissance” — and renewal, moving Europe from the dark and middle ages to a reawakening of appreciation for the classics. Progress was discovered by going back to the past, embracing the long eschewed teachings of the ancient Greeks while also advancing such things as art and literature through a more realistic approach. Into this time came several amazing artists, scientists, humanists, and all-around great thinkers. Leonardo da Vinci is among the greatest of these with his extraordinary paintings, scientific research and inventions. His Mona Lisa alone has sparked centuries of speculation and wonder, but it is his sketches of far ahead of their time ideas for mechanical contraptions that some of today’s greatest machines owe their existence. One of these is da Vinci’s self-propelled cart, the very first driverless vehicle concept, which many consider the first ever robot.

The man behind the myth

one of the only known true portraits of da Vinci

Francesco Melzi’s portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1515-18

Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 into a situation that could have easily led to his obscurity. The illegitimate son of a peasant woman and a wealthy attorney and notary in the Italian city, Vinci, Leonardo’s surname actually means “Of Vinci,” as he was not able to take the name of his father, Ser Piero. While his parents would go on to have children with each of their respective partners after him, Leonardo was the only child the two had together and was raised on his father’s estate with some of his half siblings. By the age of 15, he had been schooled in the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, and was showing artistic talent. Back in the day, becoming an artist was seen as a worthwhile vocation and he was sent to study with painter, Andrea del Verrocchio, in Florence.


da Vinci innovates in the painting of his master

Battesimo di Cristo (The Baptism of Christ) — the angel kneeling at the far left is da Vinci’s first example of the innovative figura serpentinata style

Before long, young Leonardo was eclipsing his master. While working with del Verocchio, Leonardo was asked to contribute to Andrea’s painting,  The Baptism of Christ, adding to the landscape, Christ’s body and creating an angel whose twisted pose was in a brand new style that was just being recognized in the artwork of the time. It became known as figura serpentinata and legend has it that when del Verrocchio saw what his young apprentice had contributed, he was so overwhelmed by Leonardo’s talent that Andrea never painted again.

Throughout this entire era, Leonardo was constantly drawing, writing, and capturing ideas that included and went far beyond his art. He filled dozens of notebooks with hundreds of pages of sketches and notes on human anatomy, horses, birds, architecture, scientific ideas, and fantastical inventions that were precursors to the bicycle, the helicopter, the airplane, the parachute, armored tanks — he was a much sought after military strategist and designer of combat weapons and transport — and weapons. These handwritten volumes — or codices — showed portraits beside shopping lists and in his Codex Atlanticus, the plans for da Vinci’s self-propelled cart were discovered.

the Codex Atlanticus

Codex Atlanticus as presented by Pompeo Leoni in the 1600s. The “book” is a box he created to collect all the pages. Photo by Mario Taddei in 2007

Now, 15th century roads weren’t even horse-and-carriage worthy and it would be almost 400 years more before motorized travel was more than DIY trial and error. What in the world possessed Leonardo to come up with a horseless carriage let alone a robotic contraption in a time when unmanned anything was an anomaly?


A true renaissance man

Just for the record, robots or, better yet, robotics were nothing new to Leonardo. In the early 1480s, da Vinci became the military designer for the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, aka Il Moro, which means The Moor due to his dark complexion and black hair. Leonardo became a huge asset to the constantly strategically vulnerable Italian city, designing countless combat vehicles and weapons, among these the first machine gun. He got the job by writing Sforza a letter introducing himself, what he could do for his region, and outlining his 11 most relevant talents with the ultimate goal of being offered the commission on sculpting a bronze statue of the duke’s late father on horseback. The letter is considered the first ever resume and worked.

Model of the robot knight based on Leonardo da Vinci drawings on display in Berlin 2005

Leonardo built his robot knight around 1495 to entertain Sforza and his court at a celebration in the duke’s honor. It amused all who attended to no end, and could sit, stand, raise its visor and its arms, and even had a technically correct jaw that allowed it to open its mouth and “talk.” It was operated via a series of pulleys and cables, making it sort of a cross between a puppet and a robot, but nothing like it had been seen at that time and it amazed everyone.

Twenty years later, Leonardo did it again with a robot lion presented to the newly crowned King of France, Francois I, by one of da Vinci’s greatest patrons, Giuliano de’ Medici. The lion was noted as having “moved from its place in the hall and when it came to a halt its breast opened, and was full of lilies and flowers.” The symbolic gift married both the icons of Florence — the lion — and the fleurs-de-lis of France — lilies.

In preparation for a renaissance festival around the same time as he created his robotic knight, Leonardo began sketching something that would delight children and fair goers. He drew up plans for an autonomous vehicle that would move through the festival on its own and be programmed to steer itself. da Vinci’s self-propelled cart — also known as “da Vinci’s Fiat” — had no seat, so ferrying passengers didn’t seem to be his goal, and the sketches showed no clear way to make it actually work. The idea stayed on the page and was puzzled over for centuries without anyone able to determine how the model would operate. And so, like so many of his sketches and plans, da Vinci’s self-propelled cart remained a beautiful, inspiring piece of art for centuries.


Cracking the da Vinci self-propelled cart code

da vinci self-propelled cart

Original sketch of da Vinci’s self-propelled cart, aka “da Vinci’s Fiat”

Interest in da Vinci’s self-propelled cart was sparked in 1905 when Girolamo Calvi, an Italian intellectual and avid da Vinci fan, discovered the drawing. He nicknamed it “Leonardo’s Fiat” and enlisted the aid of international scholars to figure out the device. Almost another century would pass before the ancient sketches would be figured out.

For centuries, the greatest brains had noticed, but been unable to figure out the reason for the coiled springs in the drawings. Then in 1997, experts at The Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence, now known as Museo Galileo, revisited da Vinci’s self-propelled cart and realized it worked like clockwork. The car worked via a cog-and-gear system with the coiled springs serving as the propulsion. It was basically a giant wind-up toy with springs hidden in the drum system under the vehicle, and set running by winding them up and letting go, something that could be done by letting go of a string or rope from a distance to make it seem as if the cart had started on its own. It was possible to pre-program steering of the vehicle by placing pegs into a series of notches. da Vinci had thought of everything, even the road system of Florence, which was predominantly one-way. The self-propelled vehicle, therefore, was only able to make right turns in keeping with Florence’s infrastructure.

da Vinci's self-propelled cart model

Leonardo da Vinci self-propelled cart at the exhibition “Da Vinci – An Exhibition of Genius” in the Macau Tower, Macau. Photo by xiquinhosilva

By 2004, two different models of da Vinci’s self-propelled cart were built — one to the specifications of Leonardo’s original design of 1.68 meters (5 feet 6 inches) long and 1.49 meters (4 feet 11 inches) wide, and another at ⅓ scale for demonstration. This was done to mitigate risk, because once the brake was released on the model, the cart was capable of “motoring” 40 meters (130 feet). Because engineers wanted to truly prove the invention could be made, they used building materials that would have been readily available to the innovator at the time, which were various woods. Heavy, strong and immensely powerful, da Vinci’s cart was a rousing success and proved that his vision not only for motorized, but autonomous travel was real, and establishing him as the first person to invent driverless transportation.

Intrigue and influence beyond imagining

Leonardo da Vinci’s inventions have long been sources of inspiration and research, prompting several engineers and aficionados to build his ideas to varying degrees of success. His elaborate designs and meticulous notes are stuff of legend and constant speculation. The armored tank he sketched, for example, had a fatal design flaw — it’s wheels rolled toward each other, meaning it would be impossible for it to ever move. Because of his brilliance and immense attention to detail, no one believes this was done by accident. Many see this as his way of ensuring one of two things: 1) that the war machine was never made (at heart, da Vinci was a pacifist) or 2) that his competitors would never be able to duplicate it.

a sketch by Leonardo da Vinci showing "mirror writing"

An example of Leonardo da Vinci’s “mirror writing”

This exquisite study in subterfuge is best seen in da Vinci’s handwritten notes themselves. He got into the habit of writing everything backwards to keep his ideas secret. Known as Mirror Writing, this threw off everyone including the commissioner hired by the Austrian Empire in 1815 who was charged with reclaiming and redistributing the various pieces of art Napoleon and his troops had commandeered and kept in the Louvre since his conquest of Milan back in 1796. Because of the right-to-left style of the Codex Atlanticus, the commissioner was about to just leave it in the Louvre rather than try to return it to a native country, because he just thought it was some sort of Chinese manuscript.  However, the commissioner for the Pope, Antonio Canova, who was on hand to help with the distribution of works, noticed what it was and told him to give it back to the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Italy, the conservatory to which it was bequeathed in 1637.

da Vinci's self-propelled cart is said to have inspired the rover

An artist’s rendering of Mars Exploration Rover

From Mona Lisa and the Vitruvian Man to his flying machine and armored tank, the great inventor, artist, scientist and thinker has influenced almost every facet of art/engineering/science/philosophy. Many see a distinct resemblance between da Vinci’s self-propelled cart and the Mars Land Rover.  Many of his inventions are still used today, some of which you may not even know originated with him. The same guy who painted the enigmatic Mona Lisa, encoded Last Supper and spent countless hours dissecting human corpses to better understand anatomy for his art and science, also created the ball bearing, practical parachute, diving suit, double hulled ship (if the Titanic had one of those, it would still be floating today), and perfected the scissors and printing press. All have changed the face of technology and influenced progress today, but it is, arguably, da Vinci’s self-propelled cart that set the most extraordinary precedence. And as the world of self-driving vehicles continues to expand, the future this true renaissance man envisioned becomes a long-awaited reality.



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Child Safety in a Self-Driving World

getting ready for child safety in self-driving cars

When the automobile was first invented, protecting the driver—let alone the passenger—wasn’t a consideration. So, it’s no surprise that child safety in a motor vehicle was non-existent. Nowadays, there are stringent rules covering virtually every aspect of child passenger safety. These range from which type of car seat to use for different stages of physical development to where little ones are allowed to sit. With self-driving cars on the horizon, one wonders how autonomous vehicle makers will protect these unique passengers.

Historical automobile-based child safety concerns

CDC child injury fatality statistics

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), transportation is the number one cause of injury deaths for children ages 0-19, with the highest rate of fatalities suffered as occupants in an automobile. With human error the main cause of car deaths, many look toward the adoption of autonomous vehicles as a way to significantly reduce traffic incidents. The focus of innovation, however, has largely been on the general maneuverability and safety of these cars on the road. Situations have recently occurred that call into question the viability of auto-pilot/self-driving systems in case of unforeseen circumstances, but here, again, the problems have largely been human fallibility, not mechanical.

First, let’s take a look at how this dilemma has been faced from the beginning.

The genesis of automotive child safety

a look at child safety in the early daysRegardless of early attempts in the late 1700s, the car was first truly made viable in the late 1800s. There were no traffic lights and stop signs on the road; no windows or seat belts in automobiles. Collision avoidance systems were relegated to horns or shouting out to pedestrians, “watch out!” Brakes were rudimentary hand affairs similar to that in bicycles—and some cars didn’t have brakes at all. Getting the public to embrace this new form of horseless carriage and deal with the fallout from accidents or breakdowns were already a challenge. Focusing on child safety, specifically, didn’t come into play at all.

By 1933, however, it became apparent that some sort of child restraint system had to be put into place to address the unique needs of securing kids in cars—lap belts weren’t cutting it. This was seen more as a convenience rather than protection—keeping fidgety kids in place and where parents could see them. The evolution of child passenger safety went through everything from fully-reclined seats to backseat playpens.

Then in 1962, two different people came up with ways to revolutionize child safety seats— Jean Ames created the first back-facing/y-shaped car seat over in Great Britain while Leonard Rivkin, an American children’s furniture store owner from Denver, fashioned a forward facing solution in Colorado. The Ames design is closest to the rear-facing car seat used today, but these two started automakers and consumers down the road to requiring children to have specially made equipment to keep them safe in motor vehicles. Although there have been a few unique spins on how to keep kids protected in cars since then—Ford Motor Company introduced the Tot Guard in 1973, a sort of plastic encasement with a pillow on the top to protect the child’s face should they jerk forward in an accident—child passenger safety has advanced significantly.

Child safety today

Today, there is a plethora of OEM and aftermarket child safety features available on the market that go far beyond the basic seat belt or child restraint. In general, these include the following solutions.

Child Safety Locks

Back doors

For the most part, child safety locks on backseat car doors can be turned on manually by pushing a lever or button on the side of the left and right side doors. Once initiated, it is impossible for backseat passengers to open the door from the inside.


Located on the driver’s side armrest are the buttons for the automatic windows and door locks. There is also a control called the driver-operated window disabler, which allows the driver to lock all passenger windows.

Anti-Pinch Automatic Windows

Newer windows have an express roll-up feature—with one push of a button, the windows rise to close without having to hold the controls down. When obstacles are in the way, however, the window continues going up and kids have come away with hurt hands, bruised heads and more due to getting whatever caught in the opening. The anti-pinch feature detects even the slightest pressure and immediately halts the upward movement of the window and takes it down, automatically.

child safety around the worldInfant/Child Safety Seats

Arguably the most familiar of child safety features, the car seat has grown from optional to mandatory over the years. As mentioned, there are regulations on the kind of seat to be used for which stage of development, where they must be placed in the car and are available both as aftermarket solutions and, in the case of Volvo in particular, OEM. They are credited as the single most effective protection for children in case of an accident when installed and used correctly.

The LATCH Program

LATCH stands for Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, which was federally mandated in the U.S. in 1999. The legislation requires cars to install hardware that makes it easier to “latch” a child protective seat properly and securely. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) rates LATCH equipped vehicles based on the ease with which parents can install car seats with the features provided. In some cases, it’s easier to put a child safety seat into cars that don’t have LATCH systems due to a variety of factors, so a low rating doesn’t mean there will be an issue with the seat itself.

Smart Airbags

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mandated the installation and use of airbags back in 1994. Located on the driver and front passenger side of a vehicle, they are activated during a collision via a variety of sensors. Unfortunately, because of where children’s heads are situated when sitting in the front seat, passenger side airbags can cause injuries and, even, fatalities. This led to the rear seat requirement for kids under a certain height and weight.

Smart airbags have additional sensors that can determine where a passenger is sitting in relation to where the airbag will deploy. These sensors are known as seat occupancy detectors or occupancy classification sensors (OCS). The capability ranges from releasing the airbag with less pressure than it normally would to accommodate certain passengers to not activating at all for the same reason.

Transmission Shift Interlocks

Children reaching over and shifting a car from park into a gear when the motor is running has become common. The transmission shift interlock stops that from accidentally happening by communicating with the brake. If the brake is engaged, it is possible to move from Park to a gear. However, if the brake is not pressed, shifting is halted.

The new normal of child safety

OEM solutions for cars are now the norm and constantly innovating to keep up with the changes in an already advancing market as well as there being a variety of aftermarket products available at retail for installation. Some automakers have models that come already equipped with car seats for child passengers, taking the guesswork out of installing them—most accidents involving young occupants occur because either the child wasn’t strapped in or the car seat wasn’t secured correctly. Volvo, in particular, has established a robust child safety program that has become more extensive and innovative through the decades. It stands to reason considering it was a Volvo engineer who created then perfected the 3-point shoulder belt.

Wellcome Library, London. Colour Lithograph by Peter Huveneers, via Wikimedia Commons

Innovative solutions to new child safety concerns

Once upon a time, getting fingers caught in a car window or door, running out into the street without looking or not being secured in the car seat were the most common concerns with kids and motor vehicles. Now, things such as being backed over because the driver can’t see a child and being forgotten or left unattended in a vehicle are becoming familiar fatalities.

To battle blind-spot issues, proximity sensors are installed in pretty much all connected cars and can “see” an obstacle in front or behind, signaling the driver when an obstruction needs to be avoided.

Forgetting children in cars or leaving them unattended is another matter and has become more of an issue that, sadly, owes a fair amount to the requirements of where and how to place a car seat. Recent incidents have led to tragic circumstances—due to both overt heat and cold. While the first response is that these are cases of child abuse, as more and more of these come up and show themselves to have no set socioeconomic, gender or racial bias, it’s become clear there is far more to this phenomena than simple child neglect.

Due to the concerns about airbag injuries, installing rear facing carseats in the backseat is required for the protection of children and they work. Once a child is strapped in, however, he or she is virtually invisible to the driver unless a backseat baby mirror has been installed. There is a feeling that this “out of sight, out of mind” dynamic of a rear-facing car seat coupled with stress, change in routine and a variety of factors that can lead to distraction contribute to these incidents. In response, everyone from concerned fathers to inventive kids have begun working on solutions to prevent this anomaly from continuing to happen. Child safety advocates are also pushing for—and getting—products that will stem this epidemic.

Car seat manufacturer, Evenflo, has created the Sensorsafe, a device that clips onto a child’s car seat chest buckle and comes with a dongle that plugs into the automobile’s on-board diagnostic (OBD) system. This allows the seat to wirelessly communicate with the vehicle, which then sends an alert to the driver either when the car turns off or the child unbuckles his or herself from the seat.

Other companies are presenting aftermarket wireless proximity sensors as well. The NHTSA put out a report in 2012 on the technologies available to help monitor children in cars and prevent leaving them behind. However, the organization discovered many of these are inconsistent and rely too heavily on caregivers, which does not alleviate the issue of distraction. Safety groups claim the best defense is education and recommend these quick, easy, no- to low-tech reminders:

  • Place your child’s stuffed animal beside you in the front seat as a reminder that they are in the backseat
  • Sit a purse or cellphone on the backseat beside the child’s car seat, forcing you to have to go back there and get it
  • Set up a daily reminder on your phone to check the backseat, ask if the child was dropped at daycare or whatever will help you remember to check the backseat
  • Put a large, obvious sign on your dashboard that says, “Remember to check the backseat for kids”

As of 2018, 19 states have laws that directly address leaving kids unattended in cars, according to In addition, several states have or are considering what are called “good samaritan laws” on the books to protect those individuals who break into a vehicle to save an unattended child or passenger.

This leads to the question of the legality—and, perhaps, morality—of allowing children in driverless vehicles without a licensed driver inside—what if the technology goes awry and he/she can’t get out? And what if the car comes upon a “kill or be killed” situation as it’s ferrying a kid?

What to do when faced with the general “lesser of two evils” scenario is already sending autonomous car manufacturers scrambling for answers to what is known as The Trolley Dilemma.

The Trolley Problem

The Trolley Problem by Cmglee, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1967, noted philosopher (and granddaughter of President Grover Cleveland), Philippa Foot, presented a unique conundrum to shine the light on “ethical propositions and reactions”—basically, what drives people’s decisions. Called The Trolley Dilemma, it goes like this: you’re driving a trolley down the track and see five workers on the rails in front of you. You try to stop, but the brakes fail and you will hit them. You see a switch to another track, but see another worker on that one. Throwing the switch avoids the five, but kills the one. Not throwing it, saves the one, but kills the five. What do you do?

Most people answer they would sacrifice the one to save the five. The greater good, as it were. This is called utilitarianism—your actions are right if they benefit the majority. Okay.

But then ethicist, Judith Jarvis (JJ) Thomson, took it further: you’re standing on a bridge over the trolley track and see five workers below. A trolley is coming, but can’t brake, surely hitting and killing them. Standing beside you is a person whose girth would stop the trolley if you push them onto the track, causing their death, but saving the five. What do you do?

In this scenario, the majority of people say they would have to let the 5 die. But what’s the difference between this and the other? It’s believed that having a hand in the actual demise of the one person as opposed to simply shifting the track and feeling that worker may actually be able to get themselves out of the way poses a moral difficulty.  As you can see, adding more complexity or shifting the factors gets you wondering if saving someone is really so black and white. From Philippa Foot’s “5 on one track, 1 on another, switch” came JJ Thomson’s “1 heavyset on a bridge can save the 5 on the track,” which, in turn, led to “1 heavyset on a bridget put the 5 on the track to be killed” and creating “the fat villain” perception. After that was Michael Costa positing “5 on a track, 1 on the other, car switched only to loop around and kill the 5”and, finally, Karl Unger’s even more layered, “5 on a track, 1 at his house sleeping in the yard, 2 trolleys collide to save the 5 only to have 1 derail and kill the 1 man in his yard.” The more probabilities you conceive, the more difficult it becomes to decide what is “right.” Hence, The Trolley Problem.

This is what self-driving car manufacturers are up against. If an autonomous vehicle is driving down a road that has a cliff on one side and a sheer rock face on the other and a child runs into the street after a ball, should the car go straight and save the passenger, but kill the child, or swerve left or right, saving the child and killing the passenger?  If left to their own devices, most people say, “Save the child.” However, car manufacturers disagree.

The Trolley Problem highlights the biggest question surrounding the long-term safety of autonomous vehicles in general: the reaction of the automobile to the outside world, and the need to choose between the life of the passenger(s) and either the pedestrian(s) or those in other cars. Unlike the people posed with the conundrum, however, machines don’t have the ability to make a moral decision. They can only react as they are programmed to do. With that in mind, Mercedes-Benz announced that its self-driving cars will protect the occupants in those rare situations. The rationale is that there are already checks and balances in these vehicles to prepare for potential collisions without loss of life. Unfortunately, things are bound to happen, so it’s vital for a decision to be made and fatalities will occur, although with less frequency than they are now. Daimler is willing to assume the risk—as are Audi and Volvo—in an autonomous car accident. But what if the child is not the one on the road, but the one in the car? What kind of checks and balances of child safety are being taken for them?

Preparing for child safety in autonomous vehicles

Currently, there appears to be very little focus on children in the autonomous space, although questions of whether kids should be allowed to be transported in a driverless vehicle by themselves have come up. After all, if he/she is not equipped to grab the wheel and jump in to deal with a difficult road situation beyond the car’s control, what does that mean for their safety and the safety of others?

Whether or not minors should be allowed to travel alone in self-driving cars has 58% of those polled against, 32% for, and 10% undecided. But, consider this: it is an international law that children under certain ages must be secured in a car seat of some sort under the age of 12 or within a certain height and weight range. It also states they can’t sit in front near passenger side airbags and that, in most regions, they can’t be left unattended in a car. If an average sized 8 year-old is traveling alone to a soccer practice in an autonomous car, based on today’s laws that 8 year-old needs to be strapped into a booster seat, in the back of the car, and never left alone due to concerns over hyper and hypo-thermia issues. It begs the question: will those regulations change once the cars, themselves, are running unattended?

Keeping kids safe in driverless cars

Autonomous vehicles are not just coming, they’re virtually here. The more they become the norm, the more this question will need to be addressed. And, as of today, there is no easy answer or solid solution.

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Vision Zero: A Call to Life-Saving Automotive Action

example of what Vision Zero hopes to correct

traffic today

The Vision Zero Strategy makes a global promise of zero road deaths and injuries by as early as 2020 in some countries. The shocking rise in traffic fatalities in the U.S. makes broader implementation critical.

On October 5, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced that U.S. traffic deaths had reached a crisis level in the first half of 2016. During those first 6 months, fatalities leapt 10.4 percent over last year to 17,775 and counting. The belief is that 2016 will show an even higher number than the 35,200 deaths recorded in 2015, the most fatal year since 2008. This has led to the NHTSA, Federal Highway Administration (FHA), Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and National Safety Council (NSC) to band together to create a Road to Zero coalition, a reflection of the Vision Zero Strategy already embraced by governments all over the world.

The commitment of Vision Zero is that there will be no traffic deaths or injuries by a certain year through infrastructure revision, driver education and innovative automotive technologies. What that truly means is more than new roads, smarter drivers and self-driving cars. Vision Zero is a life-change, not a just an infrastructure plan.

The genesis of Vision Zero

Sweden pioneered Vision Zero in 1997 in response to a disturbing disconnect it was noticing – traffic deaths are the only fatalities that are universally deemed acceptable. Human error is usually to blame for such tragedies and there is a general consensus that there’s an inevitability to these mishaps that makes them tolerable. Sweden doesn’t agree for two big reasons. First and foremost, loss of life is unacceptable in any form. Period. Second, placing all of the responsibility on human fallibility and treating it as a given that will never change is just an excuse. Shifting that thinking and looking at it differently changes the outcome – if you can never predict the human factor, then it’s the infrastructure that needs to be smarter to account for it before it can cause an accident. It’s why the basis of Vision Zero is, “In every situation a person might fail. The road system should not.”

Smarter roads are the driving factors behind Vision Zero strategy – task the minds behind these byways to come up with plans and solutions that protect motorists, pedestrians and cyclists from the risks they will encounter when traveling. Zero tolerance for death of any kind is what drives Vision Zero and it is what has led to its general ideals being embraced and encouraged around the world. And although Sweden’s 1997 goal of no traffic deaths and serious injuries has moved from 2020 to 2050, the progress the program has shown in this Scandinavian country is promising and encouraging to others.

The power of nothing

From Norway in 1999 to Fort Lauderdale, Florida in May 2016 and beyond, more and more state, local and federal governments have adopted the principles of Vision Zero as their own. Things are starting slowly with many areas in the U.S. beginning simply with stricter seatbelt laws as well as changing signage to clearly convey that the road is being shared with cyclists and pedestrians. While there has been some resistance due to the focus – make room for alternative modes of mobility to share the road effectively and create less congestion by lowering roadway access rather than broadening it – it has shown to be working, for the most part. A recent article written by Kelsey E. Thomas for the Center for Active Design website points out the benefits of what are called Road Diets, even in the most congested city in America, Los Angeles. It arguably proves that reduction, not expansion, actually does help.

Road Diets are basically street reconfigurations that are meant to change driving patterns to alleviate auto accidents. These systems are something that support what CalTrans discovered and announced earlier this year in regards to how much more congested and dangerous roads have become after adding more lanes.

Moving toward a safer future on the roads has global impact. Cities around the U.S. – San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and San Diego, to name a few – and countries around the world – joining Sweden are Netherlands, U.K., Canada and more – have created action plans for implementing their zero auto fatalities programs. To do so, governments are taking a data-driven approach to strategizing. The information they are gathering shows them both the downsides to current infrastructure as well as highlighting the benefits of innovative solutions. These innovations include such things as the road diets, creating separate and completely detached lanes for both walkers and riders, and showing how certain speed limits are better for pedestrian safety than others. Some of this is in response to the rise in pedestrian fatalities, which were up by an estimated 10 percent in 2015 and account for 15 percent of all traffic deaths.

This active push for road safety also includes supporting the faster incorporation of self-driving cars onto roadways.

Where the smart car meets the road

smarter cars created to meet Vision Zero plans

a connected car’s view of a Vision Zero future

In late September, President Obama announced the federal government’s commitment to autonomous car development – prompted by the NHTSA’s findings of the 35,200 auto fatalities in 2015. This pledge is seen as a safe answer to the issues facing the world’s drivers today, because of the human error issue. In addition, the president and U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Anthony Foxx both announced the United States’ commitment to the Vision Zero concept on a national scale to coincide with the release of the report highlighting the crisis reached in the first six months of 2016. America has set the year 2046 as the goal for being traffic fatality free. Self-driving vehicles are considered the most viable answer to much of this in addition to a more comprehensive infrastructure built for road safety, not speed.

Connected cars, in general, provide a strong partner in safety with new anti-collision features and automatic pilot assistance. Needless to say, driverless technology is currently designed to be used in tandem with manual driving. In other words, turning on the system and taking your mind off the road completely is not the intent. Due to recent autonomous control accidents, different solutions are being considered in regards to full autonomy.

Volkswagen, for example, has filed a patent that would give drivers more involvement with its self-driving feature. This autonomous system enables the motorist to manually react to a situation without having to completely disengage the autopilot. This is in response to the slew of collisions that have occurred over the last year with current autonomous technology. The German automaker plans to get motorists involved with the controls of their car in order to ensure no accidents occur. And Volvo has answered the “who’s fault is it in a self-driving vehicle accident?” question that has plagued insurance companies. It has declared Volvo will take responsibility in the event of a collision involving one of its automobiles. This comes as no surprise considering Volvo’s partnership with Sweden’s Vision Zero strategy and how instrumental it is in its continued growth.

Envisioning a zero future

Vision Zero view of a pedestrian safe world

The announcement on October 5 was an eye-opening call to action that has set many new wheels in motion and highlighted plans already in progress. It shines a brighter light on an issue that has been a problem since the advent of the car. The world has been seeking ways to make a mobile world more accessible to all by making it safer since before Garrett Morgan’s first patent of the traffic light in 1923. The history of automobile legislation is full of incremental innovations that strive for better infrastructure and more user- and pedestrian-friendly vehicles. From rethinking the way we design our roads to evaluating speed limits in consideration of pedestrian safety, protecting ourselves on the roads requires a look at what, not just who, needs to change for a traffic fatality-free future.

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The State of Driverless Cars: Baidu Brings Testing to Google Territory

Baidu, the "Google of China," joins the internet giant to test driverless cars in California

Baidu, the “Google of China”

Getting driverless cars ready for the road is happening so fast that tech companies are projecting more aggressive dates for production and implementation. On September 1, 2016, Baidu, considered the Google of China, became the newest pioneering voice to join the fray. The internet giant announced its plan to put an autonomous fleet of public shuttle vehicles on the roads by 2018. Driverless cars for personal use follow soon after. In preparation for these upcoming events, California DMV issued Baidu a license that allows them to test their automobiles on West Coast roads in the coming months.

Serious competitor in the driverless cars race

This comes on the heels of Baidu’s setting up a research and development facility in Sunnyvale, California in March, putting itself in direct competition with Google. Road tests around the Golden State facility are already in the works. These are a follow-up to the company’s highly successful trials across different terrains and environments throughout China with an autonomously-outfitted BMW in December 2015.

Establishing a mutually-beneficial partnership

Baidu is partnering with Santa Clara, California-based visual computing company NVIDIA to create the optimal driverless car. NVIDIA, a leader in virtual reality, computer graphics hardware and software, is primarily known for designing graphics processing units (GPU) for the gaming industry. GPUs are the brains behind what makes beautiful computer generated images come to life on a screen – in video games, feature films and more. This capability is also being tapped by the automotive industry to enhance the user experience and interface in connected and autonomous/self-driving vehicles.

Baidu is the creator of a state-of-the-art mapping program and cloud capability that is also integral to advancing the development and manufacturing of driverless cars. It has joined forces with NVIDIA to build a cloud-based autonomous vehicle platform that combines both of their strengths. The capability incorporates artificial intelligence into an automobile’s engine. This enables the vehicle to drive on a range of road types and handle unique scenarios, such as automated parking, that will define and test safety and efficiency.

Welcome bonus to local economy

This ramping up of autonomous vehicle research and development in California has resulted in increased need for local engineers, project managers and other positions to advance innovation. This is opening up new West Coast employment opportunities as Google and Baidu work fast and furiously toward getting their driverless cars on the road.

Apple is also working on automotive innovation that is bringing more jobs to the area. Whether it’s building the next electric vehicle or one that is self-driving is still just a rumor, but its efforts are bringing opportunities to the Golden State as well.

Could driverless cars be the next Silicon Valley?

Baidu is just one of the newest players in this mass exodus away from human to digital control behind the steering wheel. As California gains more traction as a strong testing and development arena for pioneering automotive technology, is it possible more companies will be attracted to the area to set up self-driving research and manufacturing facilities?

The Golden State is already established as a technology center and consistently leads the pack when it comes to vehicle innovations (setting emissions standards for the rest of the country, for example). Baidu’s expansion into California goes that much further towards validating its already solid position as a tech-savvy enclave. What that means for the future of the area as well as that of autonomous vehicles deserves watching.

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Self-Driving Cars on the Move: Is the Year 2050 Weeks Away?

Experts claim that self-driving cars won’t be practical for everyday use until 2050. For ride-hailing services, the projection is sooner. But weeks away? Really?

Uber ready to autonomously roll

Per an announcement by Uber on August 18, customers will be able to actually hail self-driving cars in Pittsburgh later this month. This is a significant shift from the road tests its Pennsylvania-based technology facility has been conducting. While there will be an engineer in the driver’s seat and a co-pilot by his or her side to monitor the experience in its early stages, this is a radical leap forward for autonomous vehicles.

Ford commits resources to slash decades

View of Ford Motor dealership

Ford Motor Company prepares for the future of self-driving cars

Seemingly in tandem with the Uber announcement, Ford Motor Company of America has declared it will start “mass-producing” fully autonomous, self-driving vehicle fleets for ride-hailing and ride-sharing services by 2021. The auto behemoth has joined such leaders as Google, GM, Volvo and Tesla to cut decades out of the connected car equation, creating a frenzy of chatter in the automotive community and beyond.

While these developments address the ride-hailing and ride-sharing needs of the public, what does this mean for the individual automobile owner who may be interested in buying one of these new rides for him or herself? Is 2050 a far too conservative estimate now given the current push for innovation?

Self-driving cars are nothing new

Several automobile companies have been toying with at least partial autonomy in their vehicles for some time. Tesla, for example, currently allows you to put your automobile on autopilot while you ride. Automakers such as Ford, GM and Volvo are fast at work to produce something that’s completely driverless. Needless to say, the first batch will be luxury vehicles with matching price tags, which will put them out of reach for a majority of the public for some time. But the cost of privately owning an autonomous vehicle anytime soon goes beyond the financial.

Hurdles to drive over

For all intents and purposes, the automobiles themselves are not delaying the introduction of fully-connected vehicles onto the streets. Other hurdles include insurance, safely navigating side roads with ambiguous signage, and cyber security, to name a few.

The “who” of driverless auto insurance

In regards to insurance, how would it work for a driverless automobile? Who’s responsible if there’s an accident? Recently, there have been documented cases of the autopilot features causing mishaps in Teslas and a few of Google’s test vehicles have gotten into minor fender benders. All of this raises questions about safety and fault. While Volvo has said it will bear the responsibility in collisions involving its self-driving cars, insurance companies are hard at work figuring out how to address the imminent future of autonomous vehicle ownership.

Driverless may not be suitable everywhere

As mentioned, maneuvering through the countless places where an automobile travels poses the biggest challenge for autonomous technology. Going driverless is made possible by the operating systems that wirelessly read road signs, communicate with other vehicles (V2V) and infrastructure that enables unmanned navigation. Signage for streets and highways is not universal, so there is no one “language” for the system to consistently interpret. Add to that the fact that many people live in places that have a less structured road system–farms, rural areas, countrysides– and that different areas have their own local rules–”Pittsburgh Left,” “California Stop”–and it’s even more difficult for a vehicle to determine where it’s going and how to navigate its way there.

Safety, from the inside out

As you watch the progress of the connected car over the years, it’s clear these announcements were inevitable. Progress, however, appears to be advancing faster than predicted. So how can auto manufacturers and legislators protect riders from autonomous car accidents and cyber attacks?

Currently, no one can guarantee complete protection from collisions or the infiltration of driverless technology. All the companies involved in the advancement of these innovations, however, are focused on every aspect of making the vehicles safe, both inside and out. Cyber hacking is as big a concern because accidents involving these highly-connected operating systems create risks for everyone–from passengers, owners, manufacturers to legislators–that must be addressed.

Realizing a here and now future

Maybe you won’t be able to ride-hail or ride-share a driverless vehicle tomorrow, but by Christmas 2016? Definitely, if Uber is successful. Soon after, private vehicles equipped with autonomous systems are bound to follow.

There are still bugs to work out with every aspect of autonomous driving, and fixing them is coming faster due to the heavy focus on turning a dream into a reality. Changing all the outstanding issues needed to accommodate a driverless future takes more than incentives. Auto manufacturers and lawmakers need to work together now, because the future of self-driving cars is here. is your gateway to these incredible leaps in technology, how auto legislation will respond to these advancements and what that means for eGovernment. The autonomous vehicle has arrived and is changing the way we think, live and grow. Join us as we continue to follow the amazing developments in this new frontier in the automotive world and share how these three components align.


The Wheels Race: Adapting eGovernment to Emerging Auto Technologies

While there are many catalysts to this growth—not the least of which is public demand—one of the factors requiring the further movement of government services into the digital environment has been the growth of emerging auto technologies.

For quite some time, the government has partnered with the automotive industry in a regulatory capacity. However, due to these emerging auto technologies, the degree to which the government will need to both support and oversee this industry will only continue to grow.

There are two primary industry shifts necessitating increased involvement from eGovernment:

  • Modifications in the ways vehicles are powered
  • An increase in vehicle automation

While it will likely be some time before we stop using fossil fuels, the tide is turning on this front, with more makes and models running partially or even entirely on electricity. The benefits of this shift are obvious since the effects of carbon emissions on the environment are now well documented. The government’s acknowledgment of this fact was affirmed with the 2009 Executive Order 13514, which demanded regular and measurable action in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the public administration of this order and global shift away from reliance on fossil fuels are no easy tasks.

The growing connectivity of contemporary cars adds to the degree in which government involvement is necessary. Today’s automobiles are just one part of the Internet of Things (IoT) network. As vehicles continue to become less reliant on people and more reliant on the internet and emerging auto technologies like autonomous and self-driving cars, adapting eGovernment to accommodate them will likewise be needed. While the current platform offers conveniences such as online fee payment and vehicle registration, it will now need to concentrate its efforts on technological advancements and policies that shape the very future of the automotive industry itself.

Energy sharing via the grid

As more vehicles begin to rely on electricity in place of typical fossil fuels, charging stations will continue to pop up around the country.

Currently, many of these charging stations are funded government projects. In California, for example, a $600-thousand state Energy Commission grant allowed for the installation of electric charging stations at locations around the state. While the rising instance of charging station implementation may be a boon for construction workers who install them, concern still remains regarding the fidelity and regularity of their use. As The Washington Times reported in 2015, many owners of electric vehicles aren’t currently utilizing these stations, creating frustration for governmental leaders who have authorized their being put in and diverted the funds necessary to do so.

Developing vehicle-to-grid technologies make powering electric cars even more sustainable and eco-friendly. Unlike a typical charging station, which is merely connected to the local power supply, one that is vehicle-to-grid enabled provides a dedicated and often cleaner method of recharging. In such a system, power sources are connected directly to charging stations, home garages and parking lots.

As technology continues to advance, the benefits of a vehicle-to-grid system increase, as well. For example, at several Air Force bases around the country, researchers are exploring two-way vehicle-to-grid charging stations where cars that need power pull from the grid while cars that have an excess give back. This technology promises to make the system even more self-sufficient and green.

Risks of vehicle connectivity

Vehicle operation has always come with risks. As emerging auto technologies become reality, the number and types of hazards drivers and pedestrians face increase proportionally. However, with careful planning, federal decision makers can go about adapting eGovernment to help mitigate these through the implementation of strategic policies, procedures, and systems.

Both automotive industry professionals and government agencies have voiced concerns about how much the growing fleet of connected cars presents a tempting target to would-be hackers. While there is some disagreement as to the ease with which cars can be hacked, the threat remains prominent enough to encourage lawmakers to take action. They’ve begun collaborating with the auto industry for better protection of judicial and private citizen vehicle systems against cyber threats and malicious tampering.

Eric Friedberg, executive chairman of cybersecurity firm Stroz Friedberg, provided insight on the complexities associated with mitigating these hacking risks. He even recommended allocating funds for hiring individuals to try to hack into vehicle systems in order to identify and address vulnerabilities.

Issues maintaining data privacy represent yet another challenge for automakers and government officials in regards to emerging auto technologies. Modern cars are interconnected with other data-containing devices, such as mobile phones. A growing number of vehicles contain data themselves as well, which offers new channels for identity theft. Automakers are actively working to combat this new opportunity for criminal opportunists.

In fact, in January of 2016, a conglomerate of automakers was officially established voluntary standards regarding these innovations in what is known as Safety Principles for Vehicle Technologies and Services. While this is a promising start, developing a sufficiently comprehensive set of guidelines is an ongoing process, one in which legislators will undoubtedly become involved.

Still, while emerging auto technologies do create some risks, they undeniably reduce others. For instance, vehicle tracking and monitoring tools could make monitoring homeland security easier for governmental agencies. By harnessing the power of these new innovations, lawmakers may be better able to track potential criminals and avoid even large-scale terrorist attacks.

Enhanced ease of oversight

The transportation network is only as safe as the cars, trucks, and buses that comprise it. For this reason, vehicle inspection—particularly of larger vehicles—has long been a government mandate.

Though the proliferation of technology related to the motor vehicle market has introduced some new complications, it has at the same time made some processes easier—especially given the growth of internet-based eGovernment. For example, with the aid of new technologies, the once tedious process of vehicle inspection has become easier and more reliable. Existing technologies allow for the rapid roadside inspection of trucks and buses, increasing the likelihood that dangerous vehicles are identified and removed from the road. The improvements cut down on the work of regulatory agencies, while at the same time lessening the drudgery for busy operators of large vehicles. Currently under development and in testing are systems that would make the same automatic vehicle inspection available to all automobiles, reports the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

Challenge of keeping pace

Increased consumer demand for convenience and innovation drives the IT and automotive industries to research, develop and implement new technology at a staggering rate. What’s more, there exists the ever-present motivation of profit, with large amounts of money to be made in both sectors. This steep curve puts pressure on eGovernment not only to keep up but to be proactive, anticipating future moves in both the IT and automotive industries.

What was once science fiction is now very much a reality. From testing of autonomous vehicles and connected highways to hovercrafts, new opportunities—and new dangers—will only continue to emerge. Never before has the need for government regulatory measures been so necessary, to ensure that safety of these emerging auto technologies is not sacrificed for speedy profits and that new connected conveniences are not exploited by those with nefarious intent. As such, it behooves government agencies to turn focused attention to its involvement in this rapidly escalating field of automotive technology.

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Why Autonomous Vehicles Are All About Trust – Part 1

One thing the unfortunate Volkswagen diesel scandal did was put ever more consumer distrust in car companies and auto software at a time when trust in upcoming partially- and fully-autonomous vehicles will be paramount. Can we really trust self-driving cars?

“Trust is essential to making autonomous cars a reality,” says Navigant Research’s senior research analyst Sam Abuelsamid (@samabuelsamid), who has been researching and writing constantly the past couple years on the intersections of vehicle autonomy and cybersecurity.

He says consumers are going to expect a lot before they trust cars that drive them around without any pedals or steering wheels, such as Google’s built-autonomous-from-the-ground-up little car.

“Automakers need to thoroughly test all of these technologies and make them as robust as possible before any initial deployments,” he says.

Remember the VW scandal? The “lie” was in the software, not necessarily the diesel engine, right? Autonomous vehicles are all about software (although some hardware is involved, including lasers, radars and sensors).

Between self-driving software and cybersecurity issues, Abuelsamid says consumer confidence in these automated vehicles is quite low. Plus, a lot of technologies must work together to bring all of this complicated data together. And then there are other problems such as security, weather and even dirt.

“While the basics of autonomous control are fairly well understood right now, many of the sensing technologies don’t work very well in anything but good weather conditions,” he explains.

For example, some of today’s in-car sensors become “nearly blind” when it rains or snows. To fix this potentially dangerous problem, “engineers are working on digital filtering to try to cut through this, but just as for human eyes, visibility will be reduced in bad weather.”

Sensors also have a cleanliness problem. “Winter driving in northern regions can quickly lead to a buildup of road salt on headlights and windshields and the same will happen to optical and laser sensors,” he says.

Another thing to potentially worry about is information overload. Sure, the car is brimming with data, but do you really need it all while driving?

For example, Toyota is working on a “3D heads up display” to show drivers what the car’s sensors are actually detecting. “Providing drivers with too much information can be counterproductive and they may start ignoring it. Also, if the information is not what drivers expect, it could erode trust,” he says.

And then there’s security. Since no computer system can ever be guaranteed to be absolutely secure, this will always be an issue, which makes it critical to build systems that are as cyber resilient as possible.

“These systems need to be designed to fail gracefully in the event of a defect or bug and be resistant to external malicious takeover,” he explains.

In fact, automakers are even starting to offer “bug bounties” as well as “responsible disclosure programs” as all future cars will “need to support over-the-air updates,” he explains. Plus, OEMs need to be prepared “to offer lifetime support and updates for vehicles not just for the warranty period.”

Of course, accidents are going to happen eventually. “For any automaker to say these cars can’t crash is irresponsible. The key to consumer confidence when and if an accident occurs is for car companies to be honest, proactive and responsive,” Abuelsamid says.

Truly, autonomous cars and all their complicated hardware, software and challenges are here to stay. Trusting them is going to take time, diligence, security and transparency.

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