Software as a Vulnerable Point in Autonomous Trucking Industry
It is a disaster when a computer or smartphone crashes, then imagine the what will happen if the software powering an autonomous truck unexpectedly freezes or shuts down.
The potential for software to cause crashes of a much more violent and deadly variety is rising to the top of the transportation industry’s agenda this year following a series of recalls linked to flawed code.
The rising number of glitches with software in vehicles is a good example of how such digital transformations can often spawn new and equally challenging problems, said Zohar Fox, chief executive of Aurora Labs.
Tel Aviv-based Aurora Labs is trying to tackle potential glitches with technology that essentially allows vehicles to fix themselves. The company has raised $2.7 million in venture capital since launching in 2016 and has about 14 employees.
The case for such a solution got an unfortunate boost this year after a slate of software-related recalls.
In February, Kenworth recalled almost 2,000 semi-trucks because of a software glitch that incorrectly displayed which gear they were in.
That same month Fiat Chrysler Automobiles announced that it would recall 229,000 Ram pickup trucks due to problems with a faulty gear shifting system that it said was partly software related. A few days later, BMW revealed that it would need to recall 11,700 cars due to engine management software that had been improperly installed. Finally, Toyota recalled 65,000 Tundra and Sequoia pickup trucks.
Fox says these issues are hardly surprising. Even as trucks and cars start to incorporate growing numbers of connected services, semi-autonomous features, or digital maintenance monitoring tools, the complexity of software in vehicles is exploding.
To manage these issues, the industry has been turning to what is known as OTA or “over-the-air” updates. That are software patches that are sent to vehicles via wireless networks.
But that approach carries its own risks. Back in February, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles tried to deliver a simple update to its in-vehicle entertainment system known as Uconnect via OTA. The update caused the information and entertainment systems to continuously reboot. Beyond just the inconvenience of losing the radio, the Uconnect system also controls things like heating and air conditioning, the movement of the seats, and in some cases the steering wheel.
Aurora’s system attempts to make vehicles self-healing. The company partners with manufacturers to include the technology inside vehicles. The system relies on machine learning, essentially algorithms that continually allow it to become more intelligent as it gathers more data about the vehicle.
To avoid some of the hiccups that other OTA systems have experienced, the company’s updates target just the faulty parts of the code. And rather than writing over and erasing the entire previous version of the software, these smaller updates can be delivered more quickly and preserve older copies of the software.
Fox noted that by 2020, more than half of all vehicles on the road are expected to have some form of connectivity. And while entertainment and communication systems are an early starting point, connected functionality is gradually extending to all parts of vehicles.
Fox said that there is predicted to be a revolution in transportation and also a revolution of detection is needed to keep the industry move forward.