An ‘inconvenient truth‘ is when reality doesn’t match our preferences. We feel like ignoring it and just move on. Which seems to have become the rule rather than the exception lately – not the least in business. At times we even turn off the news because it’s all bad and we need a break. Or we switch to sources that tell us what we want to hear, true or not. What a mess. Want a true break? Some reality? It may be inspiring. Even my rather sad story about autonomous cars may be enlightening. Reality has this unique trait – we can do something about it.
Imagine you’re driving down a busy street. Suddenly the hood opens, blocking your view completely. What do you do? Slam on the brakes of course. And likely get rear-ended. Bad, sometimes fatal, but not something we think much about because it rarely happens. That may be changing however, and the keyword is autonomous cars: Not that the hood opens, but what happens if the software crashes? Slam on the brakes of course … like hitting the internal panic button. Full stop. Does it happen? It just did – big time. I’ll get back to that.
I’ve been an autonomous car enthusiast for years. Not that I’ve ever been in one , a car without driver in real traffic, but to me, getting human drivers (myself included) out of the equation will increase road and street safety tremendously (check out the post Tesla-gate: Bad Numbers, Important Story and the full list of previous posts below).
Five years ago I thought we’d be there by now. And we are, but mostly in confined environments. Like trucks on some freeways, airport shuttles, taxis in some cities to name a few. Fortunately, there are exceptions, like taxis in San Francisco. They’ve made headlines recently, and not in a positive way. The driverless taxis from Cruise, a GM subsidiary, have caused a number of incidents since their 400 vehicles rolled into the city a month ago. Including a case where 10 cars suddenly stopped in heavy traffic, causing no accidents but creating significant chaos. You just can’t tell a crashed software driver to take the vehicle curbside.
The incident triggered the software developer in the back of my head, asking ‘how is this possible’? On the one hand, this is what complex software systems do when encountering a situation not supposed to happen. In tech-speak it’s a ‘panic’. Not supposed to happen, but they do.
On the other hand, such panics are obviously not acceptable in autonomous cars – or any autonomous machinery. How come autopilots, medical equipment, space satellite software and many other critical systems have mechanisms that automatically kick in when panics happen but autonomous cars apparently haven’t?
The easy answer is that the products aren’t ready for prime time, they’re unfinished, need more testing. Which is (I hate this) both right and wrong. This isn’t black and white. Just like young drivers, the autopilots are immature. Of course, they haven’t been around for long, have they? Think about it, how ‘ready for prime time’ were you when you got your driver’s license and entered traffic for the first time? Like me you were an ‘unfinished driver’ in need of more training. Which you got while being a risk to yourself and others. An unpleasant if not necessarily inconvenient truth.
But there is another element involved, which is where the really inconvenient truth enters the scene: The choices made by the vendors. And while I suspect such choices play an important part in the San Francisco/Cruise Taxi story, what inspired my line of thinking was a thoroughly researched article in The Washington Post earlier this month – with a title that tells it all: The final 11 seconds of a fatal Tesla Autopilot crash.
It turns out that while the ‘autopilot’, which despite Tesla’s ‘Full Self Driving’ name isn’t an autopilot but a ‘level 2 driver assistance system’, may be partly to blame, the main cause was Tesla’s configuration decisions and the driver not paying attention. He chose to ignore both the documented limitations of the ‘autopilot’ and the in situ warnings.
The thorough Washington Post analysis was conveniently (TL;DR) summarized in a post on David Rosenthal’s blog a few days ago:
- The driver set Autopilot’s speed to 69 in a 55 zone. Modern cars know what the speed limit is, so why did Tesla allow this?
- The driver enabled Autopilot on a road with cross traffic despite Autopilot not being allowed on roads with cross traffic. Modern cars have GPS so they know what road they are on, so why did Tesla allow this?
- The driver took his hands off the wheel, and was clearly not paying attention. Tesla’s driver monitoring system is notoriously inadequate. It would only have warned the driver to pay attention half a mile down the road. Why would Tesla think that the driver not paying attention for half a mile was OK?
- Autopilot didn’t brake – if it had braked only 160′ before impact the crash would not have happened. Apparently the fact that its cameras could not reliably detect cross traffic was well-known to Tesla’s engineers, which is why Autopilot was not supposed to be enabled on roads with cross traffic. Why would Tesla think a system unable to detect cross traffic was safe for use on public roads?
If you’re interested, read David’s post (Elon Musk: Threat or Menace Part 3) – maybe even continue to The Washington Post article (subscription required). It’s sad, surprising, enlightening – and full of inconvenient truths, big and small.
There is actually a lot we don’t talk about these days, even ‘big’ subjects that affect our everyday lives. The autonomous car story is just one of uncountable examples. That’s why I find sources like David Rosenthal so important and inspiring. David is a technologist, thinker, speaker and writer with a refreshing directness which provokes me – and, I suspect, most of his readers – to think, reflect on our own.
He’s on my short list of favorites who regularly put their finger in places that hurt, and write about the inconvenient truths of the world. A list I’d like to share with you. They may inspire you the way they inspire me.
Second on my (unsorted) list – and the one I read most often – has been mentioned several times in previous posts: Scott Galloway. His ways with pulling together numbers, facts and personal experiences into bigger, understandable pictures is renowned. The ability has made him a brand name (‘Prof. Galloway’) in both Europe and USA. If you’d like to have a wider and deeper understanding of the world we live in, and the US in particular, subscribe to his weekly newsletter at profgalloway.com.
In almost the same league but an entirely different (and quite narrow) segment is Eric Topol. His GroundTruths channel on Substack (and free newsletter by email) is sometimes for medical researchers only, but even in such cases it’s worthwhile scrolling down to the conclusions to get a better picture of what’s really going on in the world of public health, pandemics, Covid, vaccines and so on. Direct speak, genuine engagement, thorough understanding and telling the whole truth, not just the convenient parts that the CDC and their ‘local relatives’ all over the world like to tell – for whatever reason.
Finally two very different ‘sources’ that deal with everyday life: Politics, climate change, the economy, war, unrest and all the other items that touch us daily – communicating directly from their hearts, sometimes on the same subjects, other times not: Jessica Wildfire (occasionally) and Umair Haque (all the time). Completely unrelated, but both recently left Medium.com to create their own blog sites – OK Doomer and The Issue respectively.
Different approaches, but both have a way of connecting the dots of what’s going on in their ‘segment’ of the world that gets you thinking whether you agree or not. Admittedly, they can be a bit too much at times – like provocative, apocalyptic, gloomy. Jessica Wildfire to the extent I need a pause from time to time. But they get you thinking, guaranteed. And thinking builds understanding.
Umair Haque is in a league of his own. Renowned thinker and author, economist with a third world background, great historical insight not to mention a rare way with words, he inspires, scares, provokes, explains, connects history to current events and back – almost daily. Easily an OD, but then again, you don’t have to read every post, they overlap a lot.
To me, all five have this rare ability to place events – small and big, past and present – into the bigger picture which in turn create understanding. A picture we’ll never see if convenience rules and usually very different from what we get from the regular newsbeat. Truth? Reliable? That’s for you and me to decide. They present THEIR truths and leave it to us to create ours. That’s the way it has to be.
There are many great sources out there, and they change over time. If we don’t look we won’t find them. And not looking means ‘not interested’. That’s not who we are, is it?