Melissa Walsh

Driverless Cars and the Cost of Active Safety

Powerplay Communications | March 3rd, 2016 | Driverless Cars and the Cost of Active Safety

Driverless Cars and the Cost of Active Safety By Melissa Walsh ​​ Developers and their OEM sugar daddies are rearing nascent autonomous vehicle technology as a prodigy in car culture. It is maturing and here to stay.

All of the players except Google X -- or the manufacturers who have been in the car-making business long before cruise-control was introduced -- have plotted autonomous vehicle rollout on an ADAS (Advanced Driver Assist Systems) continuum. OEM projections for roll-out of autonomous-driving vehicles are less of planning for a coming out ball and more of releasing autonomous driving snapshots from infancy through adolescence. When the driverless car will emerge as a fully autonomous, independent adult remains to be seen, but most OEMs are projecting their darling’s coming of age for the mid-2020s. In fact, Uber projects releasing a fleet of autonomous vehicles by 2030.

Anecdotally my perception is that consumer demand for driverless cars is tenuous, but I’m a middle-aged Gen-Xer who longs for the return of the carburetor in the NASCAR stockcar. And growing up watching the Jetsons, I thought there’d be stronger demand for flying cars. I'm certain though that the OEMs have market research data supporting their autonomous-driving business case.

OEMs claim that the demand for autonomous vehicles is largely based on statistics on the high rate of driver error leading to accidents; their business case therefore is rooted in safety. And with that, the shift in liability moves from driver to manufacturer. So what about the ROI? Functional Safety (FS) features and the reliability estimation and required system checks and redundancies that go with FS significantly impact program budgets.

Anyone close to the design and development of automotive powertrain systems should understand well how FS engineers and assessors have become critical partners in the automotive product lifecycle. As driver-controlled passive powertrain systems have evolved into driver-assisted active powertrain systems, so has design for safety moved from passive to active.

With projections for mature, fully autonomous vehicles on the roads, assistive driver (drive-by-wire) driving is on track to evolving into driverless (drive-by-machine) driving. Today’s automotive technology is firmly in the “driver assistive” phase, which includes active technologies of advanced driver assist systems (ADAS), such as adaptive cruise control, anti-lock braking, active stability control, driver drowsiness detection, and parking assistance, in addition to legacy passive safety features, such as airbags, seatbelts, and human factures-driven structural design.

Yet our imaginations skirt off onto rabbit trails with the what-ifs. What if an autonomous vehicle can’t perceive the ambulance about to race through the red light? What if the “cloud” the vehicle depends on malfunctions and sensor inputs on traffic and road conditions are erroneous. How will an autonomous vehicle react to a deer running out into the road? After all, we consumers are already annoyed by our vehicle’s warning beeps when we back out of our unplowed, snowy driveway. The vehicle senses obstacle; we know that it’s merely a minor accumulation of light snowflakes that our AWD vehicle will have no problem driving over. We know that we are smarter than the vehicle we drive. Still, cars are becoming smarter.

The ISO 26262 Functional Safety standard was established in the context of hazard analysis and controllability for driver assistance active safety technologies and is relevant for autonomous braking, acceleration, and turning. But what about the addition of autonomously backing out of a parking spot, starting from a green light, pulling into a car wash, or dropping the kids off at school?

Functional Safety checks and redundancies are established in a Safety Case to ensure that operation is a correct response to input. Inputs from the human operator and inputs from the vehicle’s powertrain control bus E/E hardware components and software algorithms. What additional checks and redundancies are required once the human operator inputs are removed?

Likely, the brilliant folks in the automotive industry are mapping out resolutions to these concerns in a strategy that includes additional programmable logic controllers, ASICs, microprocessors, transmitters, actuators, and more intelligent sensors. Therefore, suppliers responding to RFQs to provide these components must be highly proficient in what the ISO 26262 standard and an OEM’s Safety Case prescribes. ​ It remains to be seen what consumers will pay not to drive their car and how profitable autonomous vehicles will be for OEMs given the heavy projections for cost in reliability analysis, functional safety development and certification, and liability the machine may incur if it is as prone to error leading accident as the human. ​