I recently picked up on some discussion around the crash of the Russian airliner a couple of weeks ago. That discussion revolved around the issue that the cause of the crash might be failure in some of the sensors; specifically, that they may have frozen over. It will take a while to determine if that was the cause or a contributing factor but I want to talk about it before it ages too much. Because it brings up an interesting issue in peripheral segments, particularly autonomous vehicles; and that is where I am going with this.
The proliferation of sensors in autonomous vehicles is mind-blowing. Right now, autonomous vehicles depend, 100 percent, on these sensor systems (regardless of type or functionality), since there are no two-way communications (level 5) as of yet. Therefore, there is very little, if any, wiggle room around margin of error – be it with the sensor itself or environmental conditions. Such sensors have to have, at minimum, the industry standard of five-nines reliability (I think I am going to wait for nine-nines, personally).
I have been conservative about believing all the hype around level four and five autonomous vehicles, especially level five. Yet, the claims keep coming. However, what I have not seen is much discussion around how to guarantee sensor reliability – either internally (the sensor itself), or externally (mud on a camera or corona mass ejection (CME) from the sun around wireless, for example).
If indeed, it turns out that there were failures in a sensor system on that jet, it drives home the reliability issue.
Granted, the sensors on an aircraft flying at 500+ MPH at 35,000 feet where air temperatures are between -40 and -60 degrees, are obviously high-end. Even more extreme high-end for military aircraft and space craft. However, for the most part, such vehicles have human supervision and override capabilities. So if a critical sensor should fail, it can be picked up and with the right kind of feedback, identified, and compensated for. So far, it is unknown what the circumstances of the jet’s sensors were at the time, as well as what the pilots’ assessment of the failure and what they were thinking.
However, with autonomous vehicles, eventually they will be sans pedals and steering mechanisms. At that stage, override by the occupants is no longer an option.
With true level five, once the infrastructure is in place that allows two-way communication with the vehicles, it ceases to be an issue because it doesn’t rely onon sensors alone. If there is a sensor failure, it can be picked up by the connected grid – much like the frozen/cracked wheel detection system on rail cars (but much more sophisticated, and wireless, of course).
The fact of the matter is that the more sophisticated and prolific sensors become on autonomous vehicles, the higher the probability of failures. Just like with the jet, there will be failures!
Now, there are ways to increase the reliability. Redundancy comes to mine first, but that is expensive. Hardening is another option (that can help the wireless elements, it will not do much if a blob of mud obscures a camera lens).
Then there are the economics. I really do not see the autonomous vehicle industry placing safety above all else, just as the security is not a top priority for devices in highly competitive segments of the wireless industry (smart appliances, set top boxes, for example). Of course, this segment does not have the same critical life-safety issues as autonomous vehicles, but it does have an impact, and in many cases severe, monetarily.
I now have to wonder if the past autonomous vehicle accidents were not due, at least in part, to sensor failure. It is not like the data on such negative occurrences is free flowing.
Well, I am now beginning to rethink my philosophy on trusting the latest and greatest evolutions of technology. Maybe flying on a 20-year-old 737 is not such a bad idea after all.
Executive Editor/Applied Wireless Technology
His 20-plus years of editorial experience includes being the Editorial Director of Wireless Design and Development and Fiber Optic Technology, the Editor of RF Design, the Technical Editor of Communications Magazine, Cellular Business, Global Communications and a Contributing Technical Editor to Mobile Radio Technology, Satellite Communications, as well as computer-related periodicals such as Windows NT. His technical writing practice client list includes RF Industries, GLOBALFOUNDRIES, Agilent Technologies, Advanced Linear Devices, Ceitec, SA, and others. Before becoming exclusive to publishing, he was a computer consultant and regularly taught courses and seminars in applications software, hardware technology, operating systems, and electronics. Ernest’s client list has included Lucent Technologies, Jones Intercable, Qwest, City and County of Denver, TCI, Sandia National Labs, Goldman Sachs, and other businesses. His credentials include a BS, Electronic Engineering Technology; A.A.S, Electronic Digital Technology. He has held a Colorado Post-Secondary/Adult teaching credential, member of IBM’s Software Developers Assistance Program and Independent Vendor League, a Microsoft Solutions Provider Partner, and a life member of the IEEE. He has been certified as an IBM Certified OS2 consultant and trainer; WordPerfect Corporation Developer/Consultant and Lotus Development Corporation Developer/Consultant. He was also a first-class FCC technician in the early days of radio. Ernest Worthman may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.