Self-driving Cars: salvation or folly?
The Irascible Herald Harbinger Demonstrates the Wisdom – or Folly – of Autonomous Vehicles
“Bloody hell! They’ve killed another one, for chrissakes!” Several shades of red crept up from the irascible Herald’s neck to his forehead, and beyond.
“What’s that, dear?” inquired Velma’s soft voice from the kitchen. Herald could barely hear her distant call over the sound of the news he’d turned up on the television.
“Killed a bike rider this time!” Herald yelled back. “Those bleedin’ self-driving cars – now they’ve killed a bicyclist!”
Herald had picked up a few quirks from working with a team of British geophysicists in his earlier years.
Before further explanation could be forthcoming, Herald and Velma’s eldest son flung open the front door, to be swept into the living room upon a gust of wind. With Davey and his brood came the scent of damp fall leaves and a wisp of leaf smoke from a neighbor’s enclosed incinerator.
Davey held the door for his wife, Madge, who was carrying a Pyrex baking dish filled to the rim with green bean and bacon casserole topped with shredded sharp cheddar cheese and Italian bread crumbs.
Velma, wiping her flour-covered hands on her apron, bustled in from the kitchen to give the arrivals each a peck on the cheek. “I don’t want to get flour on you, so no hugs yet,” she beamed. Her eyes crinkled with her smile.
Herald, who wasn’t so irascible with those he loved, rose from his recliner to help hang up coats in the front closet. “It’s good to see you, Davey, Madge! And you, too, little ones. “Little ones” were ages four, eight, and twelve; the middle one a girl and the other two, boys. Willie, the youngest; Annie in the middle; and Peter was the eldest.
“Biscuits will be ready in a few minutes,” chimed Velma amidst the chatter of greetings. “Why don’t you all carry a dish from the kitchen to the table? “Herald, you could start carving the turkey, and here’s a bowl for the stuffing.”
In no time, the table, already set with linen cloth and napkins, plates, glasses, and silverware, was covered with dishes of spinach salad, Waldorf salad, tomato aspic with shrimp, raw carrots and celery slices, mashed potatoes, yams with marshmallows, sweet corn, sweet gherkins, ripe olives, pimiento-stuffed green olives, a juicy yet crispy-skinned turkey, and the green bean casserole – a true Thanksgiving feast. Homemade apple and cherry pies, and peanut butter fudge waited in the kitchen.
By ones and twos, everyone went down the hall to wash up for dinner before being seated at the table. Gramma Velma returned with her biscuits, golden-brown and steaming hot, in a napkin-lined basket. With the family all seated, Gramma asked, “Peter, if you’ll do us the honor of giving thanks, then we’ll eat!”
As they ate, they made small talk about school, work, news of the day, Davey’s younger brother and sister – twins – who both were studying in France, and Willie’s rapidly-advancing reading material.
Herald mused (not for the first time) about the naïveté of humans. “Time and time again, they ignore inconvenient facts and bull on ahead with some ill-conceived idea that with a lick of common sense would be deemed imprudent!” With some degree of self-restraint, his fist refrained from pounding itself on the table – if only due to lack of fist-sized space between the mashed potatoes and Herald’s water glass.
“Would you please pass the gravy, Davey?” Herald’s mashed potatoes were running out of sauce.
“You going to whisk it with a biscuit?” came Davey’s rejoinder.
“That one’s lame; what’s your aim?” Madge critiqued.
“If you please, pass the peas!” Velma added.
Peter’s mouth was full, and Annie was lost in thought.
Willie had made a small pond of turkey gravy in the middle of his mashed potatoes, and was building a carrot-stick dock for his corn and pea boats. A yam mountain rose in the distance, with marshmallow lava flowing from the top – or maybe it was snow. A fork-shaped monster descended from the heights to scoop up the little corn boat.
“I’m forlorn – I’ve finished my corn,” Willie proclaimed.
Conversation turned to more weighty matters, such as what Herald called the dumbing-down of US education. Peter added that the family of a friend of his had moved to Colorado. “Gabe’s big sister said that Colorado doesn’t even include parallel parking in their driving test anymore. Too many people couldn’t do it, so they just eliminated it. What kind of message does that send?”
Velma shook her head, saying, “I’d have passed mine on the first try, if I hadn’t had to parallel park. I took my driving test three times before I passed the parallel parking, but by gosh, I could do it darned well by then! That’s a heck of a notion to just tell people to give up on something that causes them to stretch their skills or learn something new. What are those people going to do if they wind up someplace where there’s only street parking?”
“They have cars that will do the parallel parking for you now, Mom.”
“Davey, I didn’t even like the feel of ABS brakes when I had a car with that feature. I’m not going to trust a car to park itself.”
Thus, a brief discussion of various degrees of self-driving passenger cars, unmanned delivery trucks, and other autonomous vehicles ensued. Herald might have become irascible again if he were dealing with, say, an automaker. Or a lawmaker. He had a point to make, and he knew that lives could hang in the balance. The recent spate of fatalities involving “smart” vehicles whose supposed drivers failed to take over in order to avoid disaster provided the evidence that problems existed. One Darwin Award winner had even been sitting in the back seat, with no one at the wheel.
“Look at it this way,” Herald’s face appeared thoughtful as his voice trailed off. His wife thought to herself, “Here it comes…”
Herald changed course. “Say, how about we all sit down after dinner and play a game of Clue. We each have a game piece, and we each roll dice to see how far to move it. We decide which room we want to move to next, and – depending on the roll of the dice – move a prescribed number of spaces toward that room. Our game pieces all stay on either a square block that we call a “space” or in one of the rooms. They don’t go wandering all over the board, willy-nilly. There are rules, a limited number of ways to move, and boundaries that limit the area of space to be used. Each and every player abides by the same set of rules, and there is no option to act outside of those rules. The actions to be taken within the bounds of the game are finite. The game acts as a ‘finite state machine’ if you will.”
Everyone nodded at Herald in understanding.
“If we play marbles,” Herald continued, “we roll a marble in a general direction, but it can go anywhere. We have rules of the game, but they’re looser, and movement of the marbles can be unpredictable. There are no practical bounds. Actual movement and results are not bound by the rules of the game. Wild shooting of marbles may break the rules, but is not preventable. The game of marbles does not follow the rules of a finite state machine.”
Nods all around, again.
Assuming understanding, Herald went a step further. “Pickup-stix is similar to marbles, but tends to be more predictable regarding the location of actual play.”
What’s “pickup sticks?” asked Willie.
Annie explained: “There are about twenty sticks, sort of like pencils but thinner and sharp on both ends. You drop them into a jumbled pile, then use one of the sticks to try to remove each stick from the pile without allowing another stick to move.”
Peter added, “Right. So, the sticks still could flip or roll away, but it’s less likely than in marbles. There are no practical bounds, and nothing that limits where any stick can be at any particular time. The only thing finite is the number of sticks – not the activity.”
“Grampa, does it hurt if a stick pokes you? Like a willie-bitten?” asked Willie.
Madge spoke up, “Willie stepped on a mown thistle in the back yard, and Peter told him that a thistle is called a ‘willie-bitten.’ The stix are pointy, but not sharp like a willie-bitten, Willie. It could be used like a toothpick, though. You could spear one of these olives with it, so it’s best to use caution with them. They’re normally held in the middle, from the side – nothing to hurt, there.”
“Let’s move on to jacks,” continued Herald. “The bouncy rubber ball is about as unpredictable as the marbles. You start by tumbling a single jacks piece onto the play area, bounce the ball, and pick up the piece while the ball is in the air. With each successful play, you pick up an additional jacks piece. There are rules, a loosely-defined area of play, and pieces that could be flipped or bounced to about anywhere in the room or vicinity. Again, not finite and no definite bounds.”
“What’s the point of all this?” asked Peter.
Annie piped up, “I get it! It has something to do with whether the movement of the game pieces is finite!”
“Good for you, Annie! And you too, Peter, for asking! If the movements of the game pieces all have a pre-defined, finite set of possibilities, then it’s possible to define a finite set of rules for their interactions. Some games have a rule for the event in which two game pieces land on the same square or space. The one who got there later may lose a turn. Or its arrival may push the one that was there ahead five spaces. In chess or checkers, if my piece lands on the same square as yours, or jumps your piece during its move, then I take your piece off the board. Those interactions all are pre-defined, which is possible because every piece moves in a pre-defined way, and has a pre-defined set of rules for its movements and for interacting with another piece. Let’s finish our meal, and then we’ll all do an experiment.”
After the sound of knives and forks against china plates subsided, everyone took their dishes out to the kitchen to be rinsed and stacked beside the sink. Pies remained patiently waiting on the counter while food settled in stomachs and experiments were played out.
Stacking his dishes, through the kitchen window Herald spied Frank tending his leaf incinerator. Cranking open the window, Herald called, “Frank!”
Hearing his friend and neighbor, Frank looked in the general direction of the house.
“Frank, if you and Frannie aren’t doing anything, how would you like to bring Bennie and come over to play some games and conduct an experiment?”
Knowing Herald, Frank chuckled. “Sure, Herald, we’d be happy to come over. Be there in a few minutes!”
Dishes stacked, Herald stood in the middle of the kitchen like a general marshalling his troops. “We are going to play chess, Clue, pickup stix, marbles, and jacks. Madge or Davey, would one of you like to show your kids where the games are, and bring those five games here, please? We need a hard floor for jacks and marbles, so we’ll have to play here in the kitchen.”
With the search and retrieval team dispatched, the arriving additional troops announced themselves at the back door.
“Come on in, Frank, Frannie, Bennie! We’re just getting organized here in the kitchen. We need a hard floor.”
Kids, grandkids, and neighbors all greeted one another warmly. Games were temporarily set on the counter across the room from the pies.
Frannie, Frank’s wife, looked at Velma and, with a mixture of amusement and curiosity, asked through a hint of a smile and bite of peanut butter fudge, “What’s afoot?”
Velma, being well-attuned to her husband’s interests and modus operandi, had more than a hint of what was afoot and smiled in return, “Oh, you’ll see!”
“Grandma? Do you want to sit on the floor and play marbles with Willie?” asked General Herald.
“Heavens no! demurred Velma. I just want to get the dishes washed!”
“Then how about you and I play Clue. You can roll your dice, or I’ll roll them for you. And I’ll move your game piece for you – you just tell me which direction you want it to go. Which piece do you want?”
“Sure, if that will help you. Certainly not the thimble – I see enough of those day to day. Maybe the shoe. A really big shoe. Let’s get this shoe on the road!”
With volunteers and minor adjustments, the games proceeded with two participants each – all at particular stations scattered around the kitchen floor. A narrow area in front of the double sink was left for Gramma Velma to stand and wash dishes.
Annie and Bennie played jacks. Herald manned the Clue board with the lead pipe and moved Velma’s shoe for her. Madge and Frannie sat plotting moves with the chess board between them. Frank and Peter let pickup stix fall into their heap. And Davey taught his young son, Willie, how to play marbles.
Herald wanted the orderly nature of chess and Clue to make an impression, so those went into play for two minutes of peace and quiet while everyone observed. Velma’s shoe was halfway to the conservatory; Herald was clacking his pipe square-by-square against the board toward the library.
“Okay, now let’s add jacks, pickup stix, and marbles into the mix. Let the play begin!”
On the third turn at jacks, Annie’s ball bounced onto a jacks piece, which in turn flew to knock over the white pawn that Madge’s black knight was about to jump over. The jacks wrapped itself around the white queen’s feet. The ball, having ricocheted off of the jacks piece, landed squarely in the middle of the pickup stix pile, scattering stix across the floor with one flipping into the air and gently poking Velma in the leg. Startled, Velma dropped a turquoise Fiestaware cup onto the Clue board, sending Herald’s lead pipe beneath the oven, and her shoe into the path of Willie’s marble. Thus deflected, the marble missed its intended mark; it jumped the edge of the chess board and rolled to the feet of Frannie’s remaining white bishop, where it came to rest.
Chaos had ensued.
Frank made an observation: “If each game had been played in a separate room, then Clue and chess could have proceeded uninterrupted, in an orderly manner. And whatever disruption occurred with each of the other games would have been prevented from spreading to disrupt yet another game.”
Frannie added, “Chess and Clue might even have been played side-by-side in the same room with no ill effects. What are we learning here, Herald?”
Velma threw out a teaser: “Herald was incensed with people’s naïveté when he saw a story on the news about a self-driving car fatally hitting a bicyclist. He believes that a lot of pain and suffering could be avoided if people would only use common sense.”
Herald began drawing parallels. “Madge, Frannie, your chess game is one closed system of self-driving vehicles following the dictates of a finite state machine. So is our Clue game.
The others all are subject to chance and are unpredictable. Willie and Davey, your marbles are pedestrians. Annie and Bennie, your jacks and the ball are other vehicles – not self-driving ones – with people behind the wheel. Peter, Frank, your pickup stix represent everything else that’s unpredictable: pets, wild animals, weather – you name it.”
Madge observed, “The point is that you can’t mix the two types, isn’t it? The well-defined and closed system will be adversely affected by introducing a system that does not follow the same rules of the same finite states. Where did you get all this insight, Herald? This goes beyond your business in development of table-top games, doesn’t it?”
“It likely came from Dad’s earlier career in Software Engineering,” Davey speculated.
“That’s right. Over the course of a couple of decades when I was younger, I worked in all phases of the software development life cycle. I began as a programmer back in the days when we wrote our own code. The only thing automatically generated was machine language from the compilers, and some of us actually wrote in machine language. We possessed sufficient awareness to minimize the number of CPU cycles for a particular command or numeric comparison. We knew our stuff!
“When that company folded, I took a job in quality assurance as a tester. Then, I learned that if requirements weren’t written to be very specific, you couldn’t write a test case from them. You might not know how or what to test.
“As a test lead building a new team, I saw firsthand the value of testing by someone who has no idea what the application should do. They try things that the application wasn’t designed to handle, and it breaks. The application fails. Stops dead.
“When testing without explicit requirements, we’d hit unintended scenarios, and it became very apparent that an application had to be extremely robust in its handling of invalid or unexpected commands. Otherwise, the application would crash, do something unexpected, display incorrect results, or corrupt the data. Often, it simply hit a dead-end and displayed a list of code and an ‘unhandled exception’ message. What happens if you’re the pedestrian standing in front of an oncoming vehicle that hits an ‘unhandled exception’?
“As we’ve just seen, there is no way, in an open system such as a game of marbles or jacks, to identify and handle every possible occurrence. Who could have foreseen the cup being dropped onto the Clue board by Gramma after she was startled by a flying pickup stix? The possibilities in an open system literally are infinite. It is IMPOSSIBLE to account for, or to even imagine, every possibility for potential disaster.
“Having learned, as a tester, the value of very thorough and explicit wording in the requirements, I was later a very thorough business analyst. I included much detail and explicit language when I wrote requirements documents. I was also aware that users of the application – and people in general – will do crazy things that never were intended and even a team of geniuses would not have imagined.
“One of my early programming assignments was to write a finite state machine in machine language, to handle application commands. There was a finite set of commands that would be accepted. Each command might have a finite set of modifiers that could be specified to further hone the behavior of the primary command. You might allow “READ/BEGIN_PAGE=n/END_PAGE=y FILENAME” as a command (allowing the user to enter values for “n” and “y” and the filename) and write machine code to execute an application that would read and display (or act upon) the contents of pages n through y from the named file. The only behaviors that would be accepted were those that were defined in the code. Being very simple, specific, and explicit, it worked on the first try. It’s sort of like your game of chess without the interference of the marbles or jacks. No pickup stix flying across the room.
“There are systems now that will apply the brakes to prevent a primarily-human-operated vehicle from hitting an object in its path. My question is this: What if a large-mass truck is close behind the car that’s being automatically braked? Is the system that’s applying the brakes sufficiently sophisticated that it can determine that the car will be rear-ended by the closely-following truck and propelled forward into the object it’s braking to avoid? Is that system smart enough to realize that an empty lane or vacant sidewalk to the side is a safer option? Can that particular car make it over the curb to the sidewalk? In a system designed to be safe for autonomous vehicles – and for the passengers and cargo in them – it would not be possible for a vehicle to be following another too closely. To eliminate adverse outside influences, you’d have to build a closed system, such as a system of tubes.
“The way to have a safe system of self-driving vehicles is for all vehicles and elements within that system to function by the same set of finite rules. No humans. No pets. No wild animals. No floods or sheets of ice. No glass-breaking hail. Safety necessitates a closed system, with all elements within the system following the same finite set of states and rules.”
Peter decided to use this topic for an essay at school. Annie went to her room to fetch a portable easel with sheets of note paper so they could take notes. “Let’s make an outline while it’s still fresh in our minds,” she suggested, and parked the easel beside the dining room table.
Peter selected a dark blue marker and began to write at the top of the page. “Conditions for Autonomous Vehicle Safety” and made dots for bulleted items below. Peter and Annie worked on the outline, crossing out and rearranging. Willie and Bennie drew pictures at the table. Willie watched over the markers, handing the requested colors to Annie and Peter as they asked for them.
While the children worked on their projects, Gramma, Grampa, Frank, Frannie, Davey, and Madge finished cleaning up the kitchen and dining room, put away the leftovers, and finished washing and drying the dishes.
Finally tearing off the edited sheet, Peter and Annie wrote their final version on a fresh sheet of paper.
Conditions for Autonomous Vehicle Safety
- Closed system
- Single set of common rules
- System-defined finite set of states
- System-defined finite set of commands
Entities within the environment:
- Only entities programmed to function within the bounds of the finite set of rules, states, and command are to be allowed within the system.
- Prevention of incursion by systems or entities not following the same finite set of rules, states, and commands is required.
“Grampa, how does this look?” asked Peter.
“You’ve got the basics just fine, Peter! I’m proud of you! Nice job.” Herald believed in positive reinforcement. Maybe Herald wasn’t quite so irascible, after all.
“As a matter of fact, I’ll use this as the basis for a letter to automakers and Congress. See how many of the chuckleheads will catch on. Or if they’ve already gotten the whole thing figured out. Evidently they don’t, or one more bicyclist would still be pedaling about.” The high note on which he had begun deteriorated into a low grumble. An irascible-sounding grumble.
Davey patted his kids on the back and gave them hugs. Madge gave each an affectionate peck on the cheek. The whole family believed in positive reinforcement enhanced with displays of affection.
All the talk and activity worked up appetites for dessert. Gramma moved some ice cream containers from the freezer onto the counter to soften for a few minutes. It would be easier to scoop that way. Frannie, Frank, and Madge set the table for pie and ice cream.
General Herald announced it was time for a treat.
“How about a piece of that pie?!”