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1 big thing: Risky over-the-air updates
To get a car with the latest automated driving features, all it takes in some cases is a couple of software updates — a growing trend with potential safety and cybersecurity risks.
Why it matters: Using a built-in wireless connection to fix a bug or add new functions can be a welcome convenience that can also prompt people to make needed repairs.
- But if it means instantly handing over more of the driving task to your vehicle, you could be putting yourself at risk if the new software is glitchy or you don't understand and misuse the car's new capabilities.
Background: Except for the occasional map or infotainment update, most cars are frozen in time when they leave the lot, requiring a trip to the dealership for software-related recalls or updates.
- That results in higher warranty costs for automakers and a hassle for car owners.
- Tesla pioneered the concept of making cars more capable over time, pushing out hundreds of over-the-air (OTA) updates to things like steering, braking and windshield wipers since introducing its Model S in 2012.
- Following the 2015 debut of Autopilot, Tesla has regularly used OTA updates to add more advanced driver-assist features like automatic lane changes and highway merging.
What's happening: Following Tesla's lead, automakers are beginning to embrace the idea of OTA software updates, whether to handle recalls or add new driving features.
- GM and Ford say they'll enable OTA updates by 2020.
- Legacy automakers must first design new vehicle electrical architectures that can accept flash updates. Tesla's cars were designed like smartphones to do that from the start.
- Tesla's other advantage: It has an in-house team of software developers that can push out updates quickly, notes Gartner Group analyst Mike Ramsey.
Yes, but: Cars are becoming more automated overnight, gaining new superpowers they didn't possess the day before.
- Precautions are needed to ensure drivers fully understand and are comfortable with their car's new capabilities — and that remote software updates were completed properly and securely.
- Remote updates create potential opportunities for malicious hackers to intercept and replace legitimate software with malware that could affect the car's performance.
- Plus, updates can be tricky. Sometimes they've inadvertently disabled other systems.
- Tesla customers receive detailed release notes explaining every software update. They also have the option to watch videos or visit a Tesla store to learn how new features work.
The bottom line: It's not enough. Some people already mistakenly believe their car can drive itself. Adding more automation could lead to further confusion.
2. Learning from old hands at AV tech: miners
The future of autonomous vehicles is a whirl of hype and uncertainty, but AV technology has been used in mining and construction for decades — an often overlooked point of reference, AV veteran Bibhrajit Halder writes for Axios Expert Voices.
Why it matters: Developers of passenger AVs should be working more closely with the heavy equipment industry, which has learned key lessons about developing functional, fully autonomous vehicles, and how to prepare people for the technology.
Background: Caterpillar's Autonomous Mining Trucks have moved over 1 billion tons of material and traveled nearly 22 million miles since they were first demonstrated in 1985, with zero safety incidents.
Between the lines: Ironically, Caterpillar's success with autonomous mining trucks owes less to technology than to training people to operate safely alongside them.
- Passenger AV companies cannot feasibly train all people who might come into contact with AVs. But they can work with government to provide educational materials and integrate AV safety into driver's ed.
Meanwhile, the technology being developed for passenger AVs is more advanced than what is currently used in mining and construction. Some of that technology could be used to develop new industrial AVs for use in warehouses, airports or shipping yards, places with more complex variables and obstacles.
The bottom line: There are lessons that can be shared in both directions.
Halder, who has worked on AVs at Ford, Caterpillar and Apple, is the CEO and co-founder of an early-stage AV company.
3. Solving the problem of blocked sensors
Inclement weather presents numerous challenges for AVs, including sensor obstructions caused by raindrops and ice — one reason U.S. developers most often test them in states with dry, sunny weather, writes SEEVA Technologies CTO Geoff Deane.
Why it matters: Obstructions from environmental conditions or physical damage to the sensor can impair an AV's navigation and decision-making, but developers are still learning how best to prevent and deal with them.
What we're watching: Companies are taking a variety of approaches to resolving sensor obstructions: Alchemy’s hydrophobic coatings, Mighty AI’s object detection and data training, SEEVA’s sensor scanner cleaning systems, Vaisala’s real-time road conditions data, and WaveSense’s ground-penetrating radar.
- AVs will have to determine when a sensor is blocked and be able to clear it.
- Applying coatings can reduce surface tension on sensors, making it harder for moisture or debris to accumulate. But these coatings chip away over time, and developers are still working to extend their lifespan.
- Redundant sensors can portray the 3D driving environment in real time, enabling an AV to operate safely even if one sensor is impaired. Connecting AVs will also help fill in these gaps in environmental awareness.
The bottom line: To operate safely in all environmental conditions, AVs will likely need a combination of different hardware and software solutions still in development.
Deane is the CTO of SEEVA Technologies, a company developing systems to keep AV sensors clear.
4. Driving the conversation
Off-putting: Dr. Elon & Mr. Musk: Life Inside Tesla's Production Hell (Charles Duhigg — Wired, subscription)
- “Just think about it: We designed a car that is so simple and elegant you can build it in a tent. You can build it when your CEO is melting down. You can build it when everyone is quitting or getting fired. That’s a real accomplishment. That’s amazing,” a former engineering exec told Wired.
Off-roading: Honda Can’t Sell You A Self-Driving Car Yet, But How About A Robot ATV? (Alan Ohnsman — Forbes)
- Why it matters: As Ohnsman writes: "Whether it's Honda or a competitor, the odds are high that farmers and contractors rather than drivers and passengers will be among the earliest beneficiaries of autonomous technology."
Off the chart: All the places self-driving cars are being tested around the world (Michael J. Coren — Quartz)
- The big picture: The U.S. has more self-driving pilots than anywhere else in the world. By a mile.
5. What I'm driving
This week I'm behind the wheel of the South Carolina–built Volvo S60 T6 AWD R-design, another finalist for 2019 North American Car and Truck of the Year.
The big picture: The S60 is the last of Volvo's models to get a makeover under China's Geely, and just like rest of the Volvo lineup, it's an elegant, tech-savvy, pleasing car.
Volvos have always stood for safety, and that hasn't changed under Chinese ownership. The company's stated goal is that no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo by 2020.
- The S60, like all Volvo models, comes standard with Volvo’s City Safety technology, which combines automatic braking and collision avoidance systems.
- Besides pedestrians and cyclists, it can also detect large animals such as moose and deer.
- The optional Pilot Assist semi-automated driving system keeps the car in its lane up to 80 miles per hour on clearly marked roads.
What's new: The S60 T6 AWD R-Design I drove sells for $41,900, but under the new "Care by Volvo" subscription plan you can drive one for $850 a month, including insurance, maintenance and roadside assistance.