1 big thing: Cars need to heal themselves

High-tech cars of the future may be subject to attacks, viruses, and even minor programming bugs — which is why they need to be able to fix themselves.

Why it matters: We’re not driving cars anymore — we’re driving computers.

  • When a software glitch occurs on our smartphone or laptop, it’s an annoyance.
  • But when there’s a programming defect in an autonomous vehicle, it could have dire consequences. This, in turn, could set back the entire industry plus undermine the chance to build public trust in self-driving cars.

Driving the news: Some Tesla owners last week reported in an online forum that they could no longer access the car’s Autopilot system and related assisted-driving features, with some speculating it was tied to a recent firmware update.

The big picture: Cars are complicated, with 100 or more computer-controlled subsystems that are needed for functions like steering, braking, and adjusting the seats. And all that hardware is embedded with massive amounts of software.

  • By 2020, 98% of new cars will be connected to the internet, making it easier to add new features or capabilities via over-the-air software updates.
  • Samsung’s Harman subsidiary handles OTA updates for 24 automakers, but mostly for things like infotainment systems or maps. Driving updates or software-related recalls usually require a trip to the dealer.
  • Tesla is the exception. The company says it has pushed out hundreds of OTA updates to its vehicles since 2016.

Yes, but: Being connected to the internet can make vehicles vulnerable and software updates can sometimes introduce new problems.

  • For example, when Fiat Chrysler recently updated its infotainment system, it also inadvertently disabled other systems.

The risks will only grow in the push toward automation, so having a software safety net will be important, tech analysts say.

  • “It’s going to be a necessity — especially when you’re downloading safety critical systems — that you don’t break the car,” says Michael Ramsey, mobility analyst at Gartner.

What to watch: New self-healing software from Israeli startup Aurora Labs — now undergoing tests by a half-dozen automakers — monitors a car’s systems to help ensure that doesn’t happen.

  • It uses artificial intelligence to self-diagnose coding problems and fix errors on-the-go.
  • The technology sifts line-by-line through the estimated 100 million lines of code in today’s cars to detect faults and predict problems before they occur.
  • If it finds a glitch, the software seamlessly rolls back to an earlier, safer version so related functions aren’t disabled while the problem is addressed. (Harman says it, too, has rollback capability.)
  • Self-healing software could be a viable way to protect against both malicious and accidental corruption of vehicle software, Navigant Research analyst Sam Abuelsamid says.
  • Yes, but: The approach requires additional onboard storage to preserve all of the previous changes, which could bog down performance. New electronic systems that automakers have in the works should address that, Abuelsamid notes.

The bottom line: If machines are going to replace human drivers, they will need to be resilient like humans.

2. The former regulators shaping AV rules

Former NHTSA administrator-turned-lobbyist David Strickland is now the Democratic staff director on the Senate Commerce Committee, where he will help draft a new driverless-car bill, Politico reports.

Why it matters: AV companies like Uber, Lyft, GM and Waymo have been hiring former government regulators as safety advisers and lobbyists, raising concerns that cronyism could allow them to skirt regulations.

  • “Too often, such hires are there to help corporations work around regulations as opposed to improve compliance,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, chair of the Energy and Commerce subpanel with jurisdiction over AVs, told Politico.

The big picture: The parade of former regulators joining the self-driving car industry includes former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who now works for Lyft, and former NHTSA chief Mark Rosekind, who is chief safety innovation officer at Zoox.

3. Automotive ethernet needs to be faster

The current generation of in-vehicle networks cannot support the amount of data that will be required for AVs to make decisions in real time.

One potential solution could be drastically improved automotive ethernet, a network for cars adapted from computers, Alan Amici writes for Axios.

Why it matters: Wireless networks could offer some advantages in internal and external AV communication, but AVs cannot rely on a network with any chance of experiencing a delay, making wired networks the safest bet.

What’s needed: Cars with semi-autonomous features currently have network speeds ranging from 500 kilobits per second to 1 megabit per second — but fully autonomous cars will require networks capable of speeds approaching 10–20 gigabits per second.

What’s happening: Automotive ethernet systems currently use copper wiring, which is relatively inexpensive to deploy and maintain, so OEMs are squeezing as much performance as possible from these systems.

  • Today’s ethernet can support network speeds of around 1 Gbps.
  • Network speeds of more than 10 Gbps are expected in the next 2 years, which would enable the real-time decision making required by AVs for at least the next 8–10 years.
  • After this timeframe, it is likely that advances in AVs will demand even higher speeds, and will require a new solution.

4. Driving the conversation

Privacy concerns: Why Uber is fighting cities over data on scooter trips (Aarian Marshall — Wired)

  • The big picture: For Uber, LA’s effort to impose a new mobility data-sharing standard is about far more than scooters. It’s worried that cities like Los Angeles may begin to demand user data on other modes of transportation — including its core ride-hailing business.

Raw materials: U.S. Senate moves forward on plan to develop electric vehicle supply chain (Ernest Scheyder —Reuters)

  • Why it matters: Congress wants to promote local production of raw materials like lithium, graphite and other EV minerals as a first step toward building up a rechargeable battery industry that’s so far been concentrated in Asia.

Tough test: Tesla’s screen saga shows why automotive grade matters (Edward Niedermeyer — The Drive)

  • My thought bubble: As I wrote here before, components can work perfectly in the lab but need to be rigorously tested for durability, safety and quality under a variety of conditions, including extreme vibration, temperature and humidity levels. Tech firms don’t fully appreciate this yet.

 

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