Self-Driving Cars Are Not (Yet) Safe

Three things have happened in the last month that have made me think about the safety of self-driving cars a lot more. The US Department of Transportation (DOT) has issued its guidance on the safety of semi-autonomous and autonomous cars. At the same time, [Geohot]’s hacker self-driving car company bailed out of the business, citing regulatory hassles. And finally, Tesla’s Autopilot has killed its second passenger, this time in China.

At a time when [Elon Musk], [President Obama], and Google are all touting self-driving cars to be the solution to human error behind the wheel, it’s more than a little bold to be arguing the opposite case in public, but the numbers just don’t add up. Self-driving cars are probably not as safe as a good sober driver yet, but there just isn’t the required amount of data available to say this with much confidence. However, one certainly cannot say that they’re demonstrably safer.

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Automate the Freight: Robotic Deliveries Are on the Way

Seems like all the buzz about autonomous vehicles these days centers around self-driving cars. Hands-free transportation certainly has its appeal – being able to whistle up a ride with a smartphone app and converting commute time to Netflix binge time is an alluring idea. But is autonomous personal transportation really the killer app that everyone seems to think it is? Wouldn’t we get more bang for the buck by automating something a little more mundane and a lot more important? What about automating the shipping of freight?

Look around the next time you’re not being driven to work by a robot and you’re sure to notice a heck of a lot of trucks on the road. From small panel trucks making local deliveries to long-haul tractor trailers working cross-country routes, the roads are lousy with trucks. And behind the wheel of each truck is a human driver (or two, in the case of team-driven long-haul rigs). The drivers are the weak point in this system, and the big reason I think self-driving trucks will be commonplace long before we see massive market penetration of self-driving cars.

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Heathkit: Getting Closer This Time?

We’ve been following the Heathkit reboot for a while now, and it looks like the storied brand is finally getting a little closer to its glory days. I was thumbing through the new issue of QST magazine while I was listening in on a teleconference for the day job – hey, a guy can multitask, can’t he? – when I spied an ad for the Heathkit GC-1006 digital clock, which they brand the “Most Reliable Clock”. As soon as the meeting was over, I headed over to the Heathkit website to check out this latest offering.

I had cautiously high hopes. After the ridiculous, feature-poor, no-solder AM radio kit (although they sensibly followed up with a solder version of that kit) and an overpriced 2-meter ham antenna, I figured there was nowhere for Heathkit to go but up. And the fact that the new kit was a clock was encouraging. I have fond memories of Heathkit clocks from the 80s when I worked in a public service dispatch center; Heathkit clocks were about the only clocks you could get that would display 24-hour time. Could this actually be a kit worth building?

Alas, the advertisement was another one of those wall-of-text things that the new Heathkit seems so enamored of. And like the previous two kits offered, the ad copy is full of superlatives and cutesy little phrases that really turn me off. Then again, most advertising turns me off, so I’m probably not a good gauge of such things. Nor am I sure I’m in the target demographic for this product – in fact, I’m not even sure to whom this product is being marketed. Is it the younger crowd of the maker movement? Or is it the old-timers who want to relive the glory days of Heathkit builds? Given the $100 price, I’d have to say the nostalgia market is the most likely buyer of this one.

To be fair, $100 might not be that much to spend on a decent clock. I’m a bit of a clock snob, and I’ve gotten to the point where I can almost tell which chip is in a clock just by looking at the controls. The feature set of a modern digital clock has converged to a point where every clock has almost exactly the same deficiencies. The GC-1006 claims to address a few of my hot button issues, like not being able to set the time to the exact second – I hate that! An auto-dimming display is nice, as is a 12- or 24-hour display, a 10-minute timer (nice for hams, who are required to ID their station every 10 minutes), and a battery backup that claims to last for 4 weeks.

Is this worth buying? At this point, I’m on the fence. Looking at an unboxing video, it appears to be a high-quality kit, and it would be fun to build. But spending $100 on a clock might be a tough sell to my loan officer.

Still, I think I might take one for the team here so we have a first-hand report of what the new Heathkit is all about. And it would be nice to build another Heathkit product. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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Bot Wars: A Collateral Gift of the Automation Revolution

I received an email Wednesday morning from a company launching new features for a bot called Trim which will negotiate a lower cable bill for you. Give it your Comcast login info and it will launch a support-chat window and go to work negotiating rates on your behalf. This could be a lower monthly rate, or one-time credits for slow or intermittent service.

This chatbot is a glimpse into our cat-and-mouse future. If rate-reducing automation is widely adopted by customers, Comcast will have an incentive to spot these chatbots and act accordingly, and they’ll probably want to automate that. This leads quickly to a war of bots.

How many times has Hackaday predicted the future? The coming bot wars were hinted at in an article I wrote back in 2009 on the re-emergence of Tradewars 2002. This is a turn-based BBS game that I loved as a child. The second version added an automation layer — the game had become a challenge to write a better script than your opponent to play the game with maximum efficiency. Of course, it’s only a prediction if you realize it at the time. But this gamification of automation from seven years ago is about to jump into the mainstream.

You win if your automation outperforms your competitors; this is the founding idea of the automation age. There’s no event horizon to mark our slide into the new realm. But we know the financial markets have been playing this game for a long time now (think flash crash and algorithmic trading). Continuing the customer service call example, call centers have been using scripts for years. Automation stems from this, just cutting out the human; you may already be talking to a chatbot and not knowing it — a human takes over when the bot has already verified your account info and gets stumped. The real question is will you take up arms by building your own bots or using those available from startups like Trim? Maybe you already have? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.

[Image Source: the main and thumbnail images are of course from the United Artists film War Games.]

Medium Over Message: A CD-ROM Multimedia Bubble Survivor’s Tale

Sometimes in the never-ending progression of technology, people take wrong turns. They pursue dead-ends they believe represent a bright future, often in spite of obvious indications to the contrary. IBM doggedly insisting Micro Channel Architecture was the future of PC hardware, for example, or Nokia’s seeming inability to recognise that the mobile phone experience had changed for ever when the first iPhones and Android devices appeared.

Every once in a while, that collective delusion grips an entire industry. All the players in a particular market nail their colours to a technology, seemingly without heed to what seems with hindsight to have been a completely obvious threat from the alternative that sidelined them. It is a tale of personal experience that prompts this line of thought, for the industry that tempted me away from hardware to a career in electronic publishing in the early 1990s was CD-ROM multimedia.

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My Life in the Connector Zoo

“The great thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from.” Truer words were never spoken, and this goes double for the hobbyist world of hardware hacking. It seems that every module, every company, and every individual hacker has a favorite way of putting the same pins in a row.

We have an entire drawer full of adapters that just go from one pinout to another, or one programmer to many different target boards. We’ll be the first to admit that it’s often our own darn fault — we decided to swap the reset and ground lines because it was convenient for one design, and now we have two adapters. But imagine a world where there was only a handful of distinct pinouts — that drawer would be only half full and many projects would simply snap together. “You may say I’m a dreamer…”

This article is about connectors and standards. We’ll try not to whine and complain, although we will editorialize. We’re going to work through some of the design tradeoffs and requirements, and maybe you’ll even find that there’s already a standard pinout that’s “close enough” for your next project. And if you’ve got a frequently used pinout or use case that we’ve missed, we encourage you to share the connector pinouts in the comments, along with its pros and cons. Let’s see if we can’t make sense of this mess.

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Sailing Ships, Slide Rules, and the Quality of Engineering

We recently ran a post about engineers being worse, better, or the same than they “used to be” and it got me thinking. Of course “used to be” is in the eyes of the beholders. To me, that’s the 1950s and 1960s. To some of you, my generation is the “used to be” generation. To some of you, I’m past even that.

I’ve often said, there are two things that are simple: something really simple, and something really complex. For example, when a caveman grabbed a log floating down the river and hitched a ride a few miles downstream that was pretty simple. Today, you can go on a well-equipped boat, stab your finger at a map, click go, and the boat will do almost all the work. However, get onboard a sailing vessel from 1850 and you better know what you are doing. What’s more is, some sailors were better than others.

What’s Better or Best?

Were yesterday’s engineers better than today? That’s like asking who is the “best” driver. It depends a lot on what “best” means? Safer? Faster? Most efficient? I would suggest that yesterday’s engineers were better at doing yesterday’s jobs. I own several slide rules and I can use them, but I bet my mentor who finished college in the 1940s was faster. I don’t need to be faster. On the other hand, he might have some trouble doing a good Internet search.

But here’s the problem. Doing basic math is like the caveman on the log (and yes, that begs for a slide rule joke). Asking Wolfram Alpha to solve your set of simultaneous equations is like the modern computer-controlled ship with GPS. You can bet that the sailing master of a barque in 1850 knew a lot more about sailing and winds and ship construction than the average guy on a modern ship. He had to. That gave him extra reasoning tools when faced with a problem.

Slide Rules Do (Most) of the Math

By the same token, using a slide rule is very helpful but–paradoxically–you have to know a little math to be able to use it. In particular, you had to have a rough idea of the magnitude of the answer to get the right answer. If you couldn’t get that concept or do the simple estimate in your head, the slide rule was useless and you probably dropped out of engineering school. Today, you may or may not have that kind of math smarts, and it doesn’t matter.

I’ve know graybeards that keep up with the modern technology. I’ve also known plenty who are stuck in the past, talking about how horrible transistors, or ICs, or software is and how it has ruined everything. Of course, they haven’t.

Lesson Learned

As Gerrit pointed out, we tend to remember the brilliant engineers and projects and forget the bad ones (unless they are really bad). Even in “the golden age” there were good engineers and bad.

So how can you maximize your chances of being one of the good ones when this turns into some kid’s golden age? Two things, I think. Never stop learning the new technology. The hot-shot engineer with the slide rule wouldn’t function as well in today’s world unless he was willing to learn about the new things. But also, learn the fundamentals. You don’t have to know how an engine works to drive a car. But all the race car drivers do know. Having tools to do circuit analysis or solve thorny math equations is a great time saver. But you ought to know how to do it without those tools. The insights you’ll gain will give you more tools at your disposal when faced with a problem.

Engineering is a series of abstractions. Always try to drive down the abstraction layers. Know how to program? How does a CPU work at the logic gate level? Know how that works? Then how do the transistors form those gates? When you understand that, dig into why the transistors work at all. Sure, you probably aren’t going to build a transistor from raw materials. But you’ll gain new insights and those insights will help you solve future problems. Besides, if there’s ever a zombie apocalypse, it might be good to know how to use a slide rule or build a transistor.