“Open the pod-bay doors, HAL.”
“I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”
In the sci-fi movie "2001: A Space Odyssey" a HAL computer had that chilling exchange with astronaut Dave Bowman when he tried to re-enter his spacecraft. That same problem may soon come down to earth. What if you told your car where to go, and it said no?
A computer will be driving your car. At first not often, and not for long. But computer drivers already take the wheel—with lane keeping, parallel parking, adaptive cruise control, emergency braking and the like. Sooner or later, but inevitably, a computer will take over all the driving of your car. That’s a problem. Because even if you own your own car, you won’t own the computer driver. That computer driver is complex software—millions of lines of code—that crunches tons of data from tens of radars, cameras, and lidars to come up with the control signals to drive your car.
Your car's manufacturer will own that computer driver and merely license it to you. That means the carmaker can do anything it wants with the software.
With human drivers, we never have this problem. A human driver does not come with the car, so car and driver are “loosely coupled.” A new driver can sit down, adjust the seat and mirrors, buckle up a seat belt, and drive away. But a computer driver is permanently integrated into the car. Car and driver are not separate but “tightly coupled” together. Whoever owns the computer driver effectively controls the car. And who owns your computer driver if you do not?
As one carmaker puts it, “you do not acquire any rights in such software, including any right to use or modify the software.” Also, “We may update the software contained in your Vehicle’s systems or the Equipment from time to time. We may do this remotely without notifying you first.”
Scary words. And this problem is not just with cars, as two law professors note in their book The End of Ownership: Personal Property in the Digital Economy. The makers of our products sell us the hardware but not the software. They keep ownership of that. That lets them do anything they want with the software. Some electronics companies have turned off the controlling software for their devices and made them worthless. Just ask those who paid $300 to Nest for one of its home automation devices that is now dead.
We can change that with cars. How? Break the close connection between a computer driver and the car it controls. Make replacing computer drivers more like replacing human drivers. Use a plug-compatible interface that only loosely couples the computer driver to the car.
A good example of a plug-compatible interface is the one between semi-trailers and tractors. Any tractor in North America can hook up to and pull any trailer. The driver backs the tractor up until the trailer’s kingpin latches in the tractor’s fifth wheel, attaches two brake hoses and an electrical cable, cranks up the landing legs, and drives away. A similar plug-compatible interface connecting computer drivers to cars will help. Any computer driver can then be plugged in to drive any car.
We may not own the computer driver, but we can switch to something better if we don’t like what we have now. That will improve safety, competition, and speed of innovation. A plug-compatible interface could be imposed by the federal Department of Transportation (DoT) or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), or agreed to by an industry group like the Society of Automotive Engineers ( SAE ), or offered by an independent certification company like UL (formerly Underwriters Laboratories). Trouble is, none of these groups do anything like that now.
And so we should do something. Now. Otherwise, if you start to have a chilling exchange with your car’s computer driver, you’ll need to be as clever as astronaut Dave Bowman if you want to unplug the driver and take back control of your car.
Edward Durney is founder and CEO of A Truly Electric Car Company (ATECC).
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