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Electronic News & Comment

Can An Engineer Prevent the Unknown?

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naperlou
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Blogger
a new approach needed
naperlou   1/9/2014 10:00:52 AM
Chuck, you bring up a valid and important topic here.  There is no way to "prove" everything about a vehicle.  Since there are so many vehicles and they are driven so much (in hours and miles) you are likely to run into any error that exists.  So, we cannot prevent problems.  In safety critical systems one typically designs in multiple failsafes.  This is a complex topic.  There are also overrides and safe modes.  This is a well understood area and is applied in the aerospace industry.  Even then, it is not perfect. 

The flip side is that we have lived for about a century with automobiles. They cause more deaths than just about anything else.  We accept that, even though many of the fatalities involve someone just getting from one place to another, often for trivial reasons.  Go figure.

There is probably no real solution.  The next step is to outline the liability rules and install those black boxes.

GTOlover
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Platinum
Re: a new approach needed
GTOlover   1/9/2014 11:49:22 AM
I agree with what you are saying naperlou. But in reality, we do NOT accept the risk of death in automobile failures. If we did, Toyota would not be forking over 3 million dollars to two families. Do not get me wrong, if the car is crap and is purposefully sold disregarding safety requirements, then they pay. But as pointed out in this article, throttle by wire is a proven and robust technology and Toyota still has to pay.

Self driving cars? I agree, rules of liability have to be established. But then you would put 99% OF ALL LAWYERS OUT OF A JOB!

Charles Murray
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Re: a new approach needed
Charles Murray   1/9/2014 6:21:05 PM
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You're right, naperlou. You can't prove everything. This is a really complex situation because, as you mention, Toyota cars have driven billions of miles with these electronic throttles. So either you believe that the one-in-a-million error occurred, or you believe that the driver stepped on the wrong pedal. Either way, there's no hard evidence. I just wonder now how the pending cases will be resolved.

GlennA
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Gold
old news or urban legend ?
GlennA   1/9/2014 6:31:15 PM
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I don't remember where I read this, but supposedly the reason that Ford got hit so hard in the Pinto lawsuits (would you be surprised if a high-speed rear-end collision caused a fire - it happens it the movies) was that the cost to repair the design flaw would be more expensive than potential lawsuits.  Cost benefit analysis is part of the design process.  And actuaries (life insurance) are in the business of putting a value on human lives.  I have seen a car commercial where an automatic braking system stops the car while the driver is not paying attention to driving.  So there is the potential of a self-friving car to save lives.

Charles Murray
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Re: old news or urban legend ?
Charles Murray   1/9/2014 7:18:33 PM
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Today, more than 30,000 lives a year are lost on our roads, GlennA. The belief is that some day, autonomous cars could bring that down to the hundreds. So, yes, I definitely agree with you that self-driving cars will one day save lives. The question is, will our legal system allow it?

TJ McDermott
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Re: a new approach needed
TJ McDermott   1/10/2014 12:18:12 AM
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Maybe we can't prevent the unknown, but documenting an incident sufficiently would turn it into a known, and the list of unknowns gets whittled down.

One approach would be vehicles that are MUCH more instrumented - more comprehensive recorders, adding some video on looped storage.

It's assuredly a reactive method, but there does not seem to be a proactive method.

GTOlover
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Re: a new approach needed
GTOlover   1/10/2014 8:09:30 AM
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TJ, from a purely engineering stand point I completely agree with instrumented vehicles with comprehensive data recorders. However, given the revelations of government snooping and the prospect of insurance companies wanting to monitor driving habits, no thanks!

Zippy
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Re: a new approach needed
Zippy   1/10/2014 8:39:02 AM
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TJ's comment about turning unknowns into knowns is the way to go.  That's why they have black boxes on aircraft.  If Toyota had a recording sensor on the accelerator and brake of their cars, they would have answer to the "driver error" question.  As commented earlier, automakers are extremely cost sensitive, so the occasional $3MM lawsuit may be an "acceptable risk" to the accountants vs. the sensor cost.  Widespread use of driverless technology may shift that equation to the point where the automaker's liability is high enough to justify the added product cost.  Another possibility is legislation which limits liability per case, as is the case currently for air travel (see the fine print on your airline ticket).

Critic
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Platinum
Driving Skills
Critic   1/10/2014 9:00:51 AM
The thing that irritates me about the "sudden acceleration" cases is that the drivers should have been able to control the cars even if the throttles were stuck wide open.  Get on the brakes and STOP immediately (yes, the brakes are more forceful than the engine, but only count on one stop), turn off the igntion while you are stopping (yes you can still drive without power steering, and you will still have power brakes unless you take your foot off the brakes, which you should not do, and no, the steering will not lock), and shift to neutral while you are stopping.  Please practice this.

No matter how well a self-driving car is designed and manufactured, there will be failures and accidents.  Having a black box and fail-safe systems will help, but will also add to the cost of the car.  Manufacturer liability for accidents will also add to the cost to consumers.

I think I will drive the old-fashioned way, and avoid being surprised by a self-driving car failure.  Yes, there will be failures.

TJ McDermott
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Blogger
Re: a new approach needed
TJ McDermott   1/10/2014 9:55:40 AM
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GTOlover, you're right about governtment snooping.  However, recorders are impartial.  They get the bad rap from those who use them for less than noble intent.

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