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Problems Loom Large for Autonomous Cars

Problems Loom Large for Autonomous Cars

The coming era of self-driving cars will call for a major change in engineering culture, an embedded design expert said this week.

Michael Barr, whose testimony formed the backbone of a recent Toyota unintended acceleration trial, called on regulators to step up their oversight and automakers to be more willing to share their software code in the future. Without those changes, he suggested, consumer safety will be compromised when autonomous cars eventually hit the road.

"Sunshine is needed," Barr, CTO and co-founder of the Barr Group, told an audience of engineers at EE Live in San Jose. "We need informed oversight."

In a keynote speech kicking off the event, Barr cited examples of prominent software-related failures in the defense and medical industries that caused loss of lives. He said that the aviation and medical industries now have regulation and oversight relating to software design, but added that there is no similar type of regulation planned for self-driving cars.

"How do we make our systems safer?" he asked the audience. "Unfortunately, there's no quick fix. But I can tell you that the answer is not saying, 'It can't be the software,' and then sticking our heads in the sand." He added that Toyota has already spent about $3 billion in litigation in its cases, but "they are still not addressing defects in the software."

Barr, who was an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the Toyota case, spent approximately 15 months and 2,000 hours hunting through thousands of lines of Toyota's source code before concluding that the automaker's software "failsafes" had gaps in them. He added that he was unable to share the details of his own 800-page report because he no longer has access to it for reasons relating to confidentiality.

Barr's access to the code was granted only with multiple layers of security, he said. While examining the software, he was placed in a custom-built room, where he was not allowed to take papers in and out, not provided access to the Internet, and not allowed to wear a belt or watch. To this day, he said, he is forbidden to disclose the address of the building that housed the source code examination room.

Barr said he is disgusted by the fact that he is able to openly discuss software cases involving Patriot missiles and medical radiation systems, but is not permitted to talk about the details in the unintended acceleration case, so that engineers can learn from them.

Barr added, however, that he is encouraged by the regulation and oversight of software design provided by agencies such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and would like to see the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) provide similar oversight for the automotive industry.

Such oversight will be sorely needed for self-driving cars, Barr said. "Self-driving cars, smart highways -- that's the future we're going to find ourselves in," he concluded. "We hope that when that happens, it's going to reduce fatalities."

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