Much Sun Could Wreak Havoc on Driverless Cars
STORMS WILL MAKE TESLA'S SUDDENLY START KILLING PEOPLE
meteorologists warn automated vehicle engineers against relying
cars are still working to master
the snow. It turns out that excessive sun can also
pose a problem for the coming wave of robot drivers.
threat comes from solar storms, those occasional eruptions of vast
amounts of energy that can cause a massive spike in geomagnetic
activity and radiation. While these storms aren’t immediately
evident to human drivers, they can sever the data connection
between a vehicle’s global-position system and the satellites that
supply location information. That’s what could spell trouble for
driverless cars now under development, at least if
engineers aren’t careful.
McIntosh, director of the high-altitude observatory at the
National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado,
warns that self-driving systems should not be overly reliant
on GPS when it comes to programming a 5,000-pound vehicle on
how to get itself from Point A to Point B. In the event of
solar trouble, legions of computer-driven cars would pull over
and wait for connectivity to return.
is a lot riding on this, from an actuarial point of view,”
McIntosh said. “All it is going to take is a couple of
accidents” and the industry will suffer.
storms are rated on a five-step scale, the biggest of which can
cripple international power grids, knock out satellites and crush
radio communication on the sunlit side of the Earth. McIntosh
envisions a day when forecasts also include a synopsis of “space
weather” so drivers—both human and digital—can account for these
years ago, the U.S. parked a satellite in deep space, 1 million
miles up, and ordered it to engage in an indefinite staring
contest with the sun. When solar storms are coming, the U.S.
Space Weather Prediction Center acts as a warning buoy and gives a
heads-up to utilities, airlines and other industries that rely
heavily on airborne data. Generally, the Earth gets notice 30 to
60 minutes before the charged particles start wreaking havoc.
September, the system paid off. Airplane flights bound for
the poles were rerouted when the satellite recorded two
coronal mass ejections, one of which was rated a three on
the severity scale.
is the kind of game we are playing with civilization,” McIntosh
good news is that the sun is less mercurial these days. Its energy
outbursts loosely follow an 11-year cycle, which last peaked in
April 2014. The
dawn of self-driving vehicles appears likely to
coincide with a relatively quiet period.
are other potential solar trouble spots for driverless
cars. Earth is in the line of fire of a series of coronal
holes. Magnetically charged particles from the sun generally arc
back to whence they came. A coronal hole is what happens when they
don’t do that and simply blast out into the universe—possibly at
your robotic car. These events can have an impact similar
to that of solar storms but usually aren't nearly as severe.
engineers behind automated vehicles, meanwhile, are already taking
steps to outsmart the sun. Self-driving systems mostly base
navigation on a field of sensors, including laser
pulses known as lidar, that read the immediate
surroundings and speak directly to the vehicle’s computer nerve
system. More remote intelligence, such as the distance to the next
interstate exit, is stored in high-definition
maps that are regularly updated. That
means that a Tesla relying on its Autopilot software or a
Waymo vehicle shuttling passengers around Phoenix
won’t need GPS to safely stay on the road.
the very least, in the event of solar disruption, there is
enough redundancy for the car to calmly pull itself over and stop,
said Danny Shapiro, senior director of the automotive unit at
Nvidia Corp., which makes chips and artificial intelligence
systems for Uber Inc. and a wide range of automakers.
Automated vehicles can operate quite well, even when online
connectivity is hampered.
very detailed measurements like lane changes and bike lanes, you
don’t have time to take all this data and send it up to the cloud
and back,” Shapiro said. “You go to the cloud when you’re asking,
‘Hey, what’s the fastest route to Starbucks?’”