Reuters: Making cars safer: have the driver do less

A piece I wrote for Reuters. BBC version here

Making cars safer: have the driver do less

By Jeremy Wagstaff

SINGAPORE Tue Nov 11, 2014 4:00pm EST

Nov 12 (Reuters) – As millions of cars are under recall for potentially lethal air bags, designers are trying to reduce the need for the device – using sensors, radar, cameras and lasers to prevent collisions in the first place.

With driver error blamed for over 90 percent of road accidents, the thinking is it would be better to have them do less of the driving. The U.S.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that forward-collision warning systems cut vehicle-to-vehicle crashes by 7 percent – not a quantum leap, but a potential life saver. Nearly 31,000 people died in car accidents in 2012 in the United States alone.

“Passive safety features will stay important, and we need them. The next level is now visible. Autonomous driving for us is clearly a strategy to realise our vision for accident-free driving,” said Thomas Weber, global R&D head at Mercedes-Benz .

While giving a computer full control of a car is some way off, there’s a lot it can do in the meantime.

For now, in some cars you can take your foot off the pedal and hands off the wheel in slow-moving traffic, and the car will keep pace with the vehicle in front; it can jolt you awake if it senses you’re nodding off; alert you if you’re crossing into another lane; and brake automatically if you don’t react to warnings of a hazard ahead.

How close this all comes to leaving the driver out of the equation was illustrated by an experiment at Daimler last year: adding just a few off-the-shelf components to an S-class Mercedes, a team went on a 100 km (62 mile) ride in Germany without human intervention. “The project was about showing how far you can go, not just with fancy lasers, but with stuff you can buy off the shelf,” said David Pfeiffer, one of the team.

Such features, however, require solving thorny problems, including how to avoid pedestrians.

While in-car cameras are good at identifying and classifying objects, they don’t work so well in fog or at night. Radar, on the other hand, can calculate the speed, distance and direction of objects, and works well in limited light, but can’t tell between a pedestrian and a pole. While traffic signs are stationary and similar in shape, people are often neither.

For a better fix on direction there’s LiDAR – a combination of light and radar – which creates a picture of objects using lasers. Velodyne’s sensors on Google’s autonomous car, for example, use up to 64 laser beams spinning 20 times per second to create a 360-degree, 3D view of up to several hundred metres around the car.

Mercedes’ ‘Stop-and-Go Pilot’ feature matches the speed of the car in front in slow traffic and adjusts steering to stay in lane using two ultrasonic detectors, five cameras and six radar sensors. “This technology is a first major step,” said R&D chief Weber. “(However distracted the driver is), the system mitigates any accident risk in front.”

HOLY GRAIL

The next stage, experts say, is a road network which talks to cars, and where cars talk to other cars. General Motors has said its 2017 Cadillac CTS will transmit and receive location, direction and speed data with oncoming vehicles via a version of Wi-Fi.

Other approaches include using cameras to monitor the driver. Abdelaziz Khiat, at Nissan Motor’s research centre in Japan, uses cameras to track the driver’s face to detect yawns, a drooping head suggesting drowsiness, or frowns that may indicate the onset of road rage.

These advanced safety features are fine – if you can afford them. The Insurance Institute survey found that the forward collision warning systems were available in fewer than one in every 20 registered vehicles in 2012.

In key markets across emerging Asia, says Klaus Landhaeusser, regional head of government relations at Bosch , many first-time car buyers don’t want to spend more than $2,500. For that, he said, “you won’t be able to introduce any safety features.”

Road conditions are also key. “It will be a long time before we have software and algorithms that can see everything happening” on the roads in emerging markets, said Henrik Kaar, at auto safety equipment market leader Autoliv Inc.

And not everyone welcomes this progress. Some drivers complain the technology is intrusive, or is inconsistent. “If a safety feature is seen as intrusive or bothersome, a driver may try to circumvent or disable it,” said Chris Hayes, a vice president at insurer Travelers.

The key appears to be ensuring that while humans remain in charge of the vehicle, they have good information and features that correct the errors they make.

“For a long time, people thought it was an all-or-nothing jump between humans in charge and fully autonomous vehicles,” said Michael James, senior research scientist at Toyota Motor’s U.S. technical centre. “I don’t think that’s the case anymore. People see it as a more gradual transition.”

 

(Additional reporting by Norihiko Shirouzu; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

Elitism’s Big Security Hole

You would expect that if you choose an elite, premium product or service that it was more secure than its lesser, bog standard one. But after an incident today I’m not so sure.

I happen to have a fancy premium account at my bank. I didn’t really want it, and object to such things on champagne socialist grounds, but it happened that way. So I arrive in town, and am looking for an ATM. I espy the logo of my bank on the airport concourse and head that way. Three members of staff stand around the branch entrance, doing that half-welcoming, half-bouncer thing that staff do. I asked if there was an ATM inside, and they said yes, but instead of letting me in, pointed me back across the vast concourse to the railway terminus. “None in here?” I asked, surprised. By then I was fishing inside my wallet for my ATM card and they caught a glimpse of its fancy charcoal greyness. Their attitude changed in a flash to one of abject obeisance. “This way, kind sire,” they said (or something like that) and ushered me inside the darkened interior, round a couple of corners to my very own ATM machine, before withdrawing to a discreet but accessible distance. Butlers passed bearing flutes of champagne; customers carrying men’s purses perused glossy brochures with names like “Managing Your Family’s Wealth So You Can Have Trouble-free Weekends in Your Phuket Condo With An Office Secretary” or something.

Offputting, but I was happy to get some my hands on some cash. Until I realised I had forgot my PIN. No problem, one of the staff said, and led me around more corners to a bank of eager customer advisor executives, or something, all with perfect teeth and wide smiles. They happily gave me cash and balances, none of it requiring any proof of identity on my part. I got to suck a sweet while they did. The three bouncers led me outside as if I was the King of Siam collecting tribute.

I was happy with all the deference and genuflecting, but it made me realise that premium service isn’t really about premium service; it means paying through the nose not to be troubled by impertinent little serfs asking me for proof of identity when I want to move millions of dollars around/see my jewelry collection in a bank vault/pass through immigration. It’s actually about dismantling security, not about enhancing it.

It’s a simple equation: Companies charge more fees to these kinds of people, providing what looks like a Rolls Royce service. People love getting star treatment, assuming that fake veneer and snow-white smiles equate quality. Of course all it really means is that the basic service — in this case the ATM machine — has been moved off to a remote corner for the unwashed who refuse to pay for the premium service. But more importantly, the actual quality that should be a feature of the improved service is severely compromised, if not entirely absent, since the implicit agreement is that customers won’t be asked for proof of identity. That may seem like an advantage to the customer, but if someone had stolen my wallet they would have been able to empty my account without breaking a sweat. They might even have been offered a shoulder massage while the staff counted the money.

There must be a name for this skewed security thinking. And it must apply to all sorts of services.

Me? I’m downgrading my account and rejoining the plebs. It’s safer there: They won’t let me in the branch without flashing my ID card.

Cash With a Human Face

Here’s a useful innovation for foiling scammers stealing money from ATMs with their heads covered to avoid identification: a system which “can distinguish between someone whose face is covered or uncovered, and only grant access to those who bare their faces.”

No face, no dosh

No face, no dosh

According to Taiwan’s Central News Agency (no story URL available; first paragraph here), the system was developed by a research team headed by Lin Chin-teng, dean of the College of Computer Science, National Chiao Tung University in Hsinchu, “and can deny ATM access to users who have their faces covered”:

The system’s developers said they hoped the device would assist law enforcers in stopping a common crime involving ATMs: thieves disguise their face with motorcycle helmets or masks, even while their images are being captured by ATM surveillance cameras.

Worm Hits Diebold’s Windows ATMs

It’s not happy days for Diebold, the company behind ATMs and electronic voting. Its e-voting machines have been the source of much controversy — earlier this month it withdrew its suit against people who had posted leaked documents about alleged security breaches in the software. Now its automatic teller machines have been hit — by viruses.

Wired reports that ATMs at two banks running Microsoft Windows software were infected by a computer virus in August, the maker of the machines said. The ATM infections, first reported by SecurityFocus.com, are believed to be the first of a computer virus wiggling directly onto cash machines. (The Register said in January that the Slammer worm brought down 13,000 Bank of America ATMs, but they weren’t directly infected: the worm infected database servers on the same network, spewing so much traffic the cash machines couldn’t process transactions.)

But how can an ATM get infected? SecurityFocus says that while “ATMs typically sit on private networks or VPNs, the most serious worms in the last year have demonstrated that supposedly-isolated networks often have undocumented connections to the Internet, or can fall to a piece of malicious code inadvertently carried beyond the firewall on a laptop computer.” In other words: the folk who write worms are smarter than we are.

News: Worms and Blackouts

 Conspiracy theorists reckon the big power blackout in the U.S. Northeast and part of Canada may have been caused by the Blaster worm. Here’s Robert X. Cringely from InfoWorld: “Many plants on the grid run a Windows-based SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) system that receives remote commands through the same RPC (Remote Procedure Call) protocol exploited by MSBlaster. Among other things, SCADA systems control the amount of energy each plant produces.”

News: When An ATM Isn’t An ATM

 From the These Thieves Are So Smart, Why Can’t They Get A Real Job Dept comes a story about ATMs. The Canadian Press reports of a scam in Ontario where the bad guys have rigged a number of existing bank machines allowing them to make working copies of customers’ debit cards by putting on a mask.
 
 
The thieves install a false front on an ATM machine for a few hours, painted identically to the actual front of the real machine.When a customer slides a debit card into the card slot on the false front, a small electronic device attached to the front reads all the information contained on the card. A tiny camera installed just above the machine’s number pad videotapes customers as they type in their personal identification numbers. The thieves then produce their own magnetic cards containing identical information to customers’ cards.