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People should not be beta-testing cars…

I drive an electric car. It’s lovely. It is quiet, environmentally friendly, cheap to run (not cheap to buy though) and it’s fun. Here’s the thing though: it’s a big black box with lots of stickers inside it saying things like “high voltage” (well duh). Servicing it is impossible for your average amateur. It’s a computer on wheels (well, lots of computers with a few wheels). In fact, if something goes wrong, you’d better hope that the car can tell you what it is. The manufacturer (Ford) promised an over the air update to turn on things like hands-free driving in the Fall of 2021. It’s now apparently been delayed until the Spring of 2022. But the new cars coming off the production line have the software installed and are happily tootling along the roads I might be sharing with them. How do I feel about this? Let me see: I can use my phone as a key. There’s an app. 75% of the time it works, the other 25% the car just doesn’t see the key. There is no reason to it. It happens when I am driving. I could be at the car, it turns on the lights to show it has seen the key and then it refuses to open the doors because there’s no key. It’s the same key in the same phone in the same pocket. How does that make sense? Occasionally when I look down at the odometer it shows the distance in miles, before it switches back to kilometres the next time I start up the car. And it’s the same number – I’d frankly be happier if it at least converted the miles to kilometres and back again. Don’t get me wrong: I love the car. These problems are little niggly things, but surely fixing the problems of a car should not amount to “have you tried turning it off and on again?” As I write this Tesla has just recalled a bunch of its cars because the latest self-driving update had a few of them activating the Automated Emergency Brake. This, as you can imagine, is something of an issue not only for the people in the car, but for the people in the car(s) behind. Every time I see a Tesla now I stay away because if I rear-end it as a result of that software problem, it’ll likely be seen as my fault. And anyway, in such a situation I may not be around to be able to argue that it wasn’t. We know how to do this stuff. We already do it. A whole bunch of computers fly the planes we happily get on to visit other places. Lots of them pilot rockets into orbit to drop off people on the ISS, or satellites into orbit. You know what though? Each and every system on these has been tested until it breaks, then had very smart people try to figure out why it broke, so it doesn’t actually happen in ‘real life.’ Each and every one of these has backups, fail-safes, goodness knows what else protections to make sure that, in the event something goes wrong, there’s enough capacity to get the people inside them home safely. And each and every one of them, in the event of that homecoming not happening, is subject to the most minute of examinations to see what went wrong, to ensure it doesn’t happen again. These things are called safety-critical systems for a reason. And they are treated very differently from the PC on your desk, or the phone in your pocket. Which is fairly obvious when you consider things like exploding batteries. Best not to mention the odd Chevy Bolt here then eh? And yet, a whole bunch of people are being asked, no, they are actually paying, to be beta testers of potentially buggy software in vehicles weighing several tons rushing down the highways the rest of us drive on. It’s quite astonishing. I’m a motorcyclist (actually I drive an electric motorcycle too!). I am used to treating everyone as if they are trying to kill me, and as a result I’m not entirely surprised when they do. A conversation with friends the other day reminded me that it’s entirely the same for bicyclists. And if you think that autonomous vehicles might make it better, consider: BMW has patented a system of reflectors for motorcycles so that the radar used in today’s cars can actually see the bikes around them. Presumably because the drivers are too busy finding the right control for turning the heat up to pay attention to the fact that now it’s the software trying to kill me (or Ryan Reynolds). Tesla is deploying software that may actively put the cars, drivers and everyone around them in real danger. And people think it’s okay? It’s not okay. It shows a complete disregard for, well, pretty much everything except, say, money. So how do I feel about the software download not coming to my car just yet? I’m okay with it if it means it will be safer. I’m just a bit more worried about the Tesla in front of me.

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