Autonomy

relaxed_self_drivers

If there’s one thing I love to do, its drive.

If there’s two things I get to love to do, its ride motorcycles.

I bring a skilled, engaged, activist perspective to both related activities. I like my cars and bikes analog, with manual gearshifts, torquey engines, firm suspensions, powerful brakes.

These machines are complex systems whose sole mission is to translate my will and skill as a driver and rider into a precise path down the road of my choosing. They are machines that amplify and multiply the speed and force of the human that controls them into a ballet of physics: acceleration, friction, g-forces.

I’ve just been on a ride through Northern Virginia’s Silicon Valley of the East, and I can tell you that I am all but alone in seeing any value in this.

***

I consider myself expert on a small range of topics. Information Technology and Internal Combustion transportation just happen to be two of them.

Where the two overlap is something that fascinates me.

In recent years, the trend has been to drive increasing amounts of automation into the management of moving vehicles.

Initially, AntiLock Braking systems were the first automation to find its way onto cars and motorcycles. The theory and practice are both simple. Use the increased processing power of sensors and computers to modulate braking far faster and more consistently than it is possible for a human to do so.

The theory is excellent.

Initially, though, the practice was awful.

The first ABS computers were simply not adequate for the task at hand. Their ability to recognize a locked wheel was simply not fast enough, and the number of cycles per second at which these systems could operate meant that, for example, at 60 miles per hour, if the system took a quarter second to release and reapply the brakes, the vehicle could cover between 80 and 100 feet with no effective braking occurring.

On a motorcycle, the cycle times of those early systems was sufficient to make sure you would likely hit something you were panic braking to avoid.

The marginal performance of those early systems was short lived, though.

Bosch’s most recent motorcycle ABS system is so proficient that – in a documented head-to-head test – it was able to consistently outbrake the Racer who won last year’s Baja 1000 offroad rally on a loose dirt surface – the worst case scenario for measuring the effectiveness of release and repressurize ABS cycle times.

***

ABS, though, was just the first salvo in what was to become an all-out e-war for control of the motor vehicle.

Traction Control – essentially ABS in reverse – was next. Control spinning tires under power – using the same sensors required for ABS — and one ‘assists’ the driver in maintaining directional control.

This notion of driver ‘assist’ started out as a passive thing – modulate some driver control inputs where necessary to maintain vehicle control.

But the notion of passive diver or rider aides very quickly changed, and in a very fundamental way. As the available processing horsepower and bandwidth of microprocessors exploded, the ‘assists’ crossed a line of demarcation where they first became active – doing things a driver didn’t or couldn’t do – and then became autonomous – in that they did things on their own while disregarding completely and input from the ‘driver’.

The first time I threw one of my family cars — a 2009 Nissan Cube – into an exit ramp in a way that made the vehicle’s dynamic stability control ‘uncomfortable’ – and the car’s systems differential braked just the two outside wheels, I knew a line had been passed.

Look at the automobile commercials you see everyday on television. SUVs that stop themselves when something crosses behind the vehicle while reversing. Automobiles that stop themselves when forward facing radars detect an imminent collision. The Mercedes-Benz commercials that depict their top of the line sedan threading its way through a gauntlet of delivery trucks hurtling simultaneously from both sides of the roadway.

The endpoint of that process is easy to divine – at a certain point, the available ‘assists’ become completely autonomous, and the ‘driver’ becomes completely superfluous.

***

I’ll make no bones about disclosing that, at least on motorcycles, I was profoundly un-enthusiastic about many of these developments.

Motorcycles adopted ‘ride-by-wire’ technologies from aviation practice where the throttle grip was no longer connected to butterflies in the intake tracts of the engine – instead it was connected to the Engine Control Unit (ECU), whose software was in charge of translating your requests to what was happening at the contact patch of the rear tire.

The fine line between a motorcycle rider and a master motorcyclist had been – pre-rider-aides – the ability to control the vehicle once one or both of the wheels started to slide. From Gary Nixon through Kenny Roberts to Valentino Rossi – the great champions of the sport were all demarked by their uncanny abilities to modulate and control a dynamic system where drift at the tire contact patches was what made them faster.

Personally, that mastery had taken me years to develop, and was much of what appealed to me in the sport. I told everyone who would listen that I was personally not prepared to simply cede that control to some outsourced software engineer in South Asia. I’ve worked with software my entire career. Errors in software fueled much of my professional life. Errors in software in this environment was something I had no desire to debug.

Following that, widespread ridicule rained on my head. I was called a Luddite. People mocked me for hypocrisy – working in technology but refusing the inevitable progress it provided. I was told that the advance of technology in motorcycling was designed to ‘free me to concentrate on more strategic decision making’. My response to this was that these technologies would essentially ensure that new riders would never have the opportunity to develop the skills to truly understand how their vehicles worked.

The technology has continued to advance – today’s Yamaha YZF-R1 street motorcycle has an Inertial Measuring Unit (IMU) – featuring gyroscopes, accelerometers and GPS – that can tell how far the motorcycle is leaned over, whether it is speeding up or slowing down, and whether the rate of acceleration or deceleration is lifting the front or rear wheel. The IMU outputs can control engine output, braking, and make fine adjustments in both the valving and springing of the suspension in real-time. This unit, which is sold as part of vehicle that retails for $16,000, is several levels of magnitude more capable than IMUs which are still deployed as part of America’s Nuclear Weapons Arsenal.

4 of the top 5 riders competing in MotoGP racing today are riders that are too young to have ever ridden a motorcycle that did not have such electronic aides. They are successful because they never developed the reflexes of self-preservation that tell one that it is not survivable to open the throttle wide open when the bike is leaned over to its limits. These guys just take the bike to its limits, roll the throttle wide open, and let the sensors and Management Units do their jobs.

That war is over, and unsurprisingly, I am vanquished.

***

So, it is more than a little surprising when I tell you today that I think that a car that drives itself is not a bad thing. ™

Automation, regardless of the area of endeavor, has always been a natural technological development for tasks that humans no longer wanted to perform.

On a commuting run today on my motorcycle, the number of people that I saw in traffic that were doing anything and everything other than driving was nothing short of staggering.

In Maryland, where I live, use of any handheld electronic device while driving is now a primary moving violation offence, for which any police officer can pull a driver over with no other violation in evidence. Compliance and enforcement are not yet at the point where I – as an unprotected road user – would like to see them, but the new law has reduced the most egregious abuses.

Unfortunately, most of my route is in Virginia, which has no such regulations.

I’ve seen people in Northern Virginia traffic with holding fixtures for their iPads mounted on their steering wheels. One such individual was – when I pulled alongside – bingewatching episodes of Breaking Bad.

I’m fortunate that a much older and very skilled and experienced motorcyclist taught me, when I was young, to actively observe the visual focus of the driver of every vehicle I approach by looking in their rearview mirrors. In 1985 it wasn’t a problem, but today, a cocked head means a phone in use and heads and eyes that are directed down inevitably mean smart phones or tablets being used to surf or send messages.

The motor vehicles of the distracted are far worse than dealing with drunks. Their lines on the road are irregular – weaving and failing to maintain lane or following distance discipline. They tend to cause traffic flows which speed up and slow down unpredictably due to their utter lack of situational awareness. They tend to hit other vehicles – either in rear end impacts or in intersections – at high closing rates without having ever braked before impact. They tend to change lanes abruptly without warning. Use of turn signals is almost unheard of.

For these people, a combination of distraction and congestion has made driving simply a dull, uninteresting chore that is to be avoided at all costs.

And for those people, the autonomous cars currently being developed by Google, Tesla and Apple are a compelling technology that will keep them, and by inference, the rest of us who are forced to share pavement with them, safer.

A surprised or inattentive human, armed with a 2 ton SUV or crossover, is the most unpredictable, and hence dangerous thing imaginable.

I have to think, understanding software and automation the way I do, that automated cars will be, if nothing else, entirely predictable in how they approach standard conditions on public highways. Their sensor arrays will make them more aware of their surroundings than the average human.

After considering the possibility for quite some time, I’ve come to the conclusion that having the robot cars as my travel companions has to compare favorably with Breaking Bad guy.

It just can’t be worse.

Just don’t be surprised if I keep a 50 year old motorcycle hidden under a tarp somewhere where the robots can’t find it.

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