The Problem With Self-Driving Cars – And Self-Flying Planes

Many petrolheads are worried that self-driving cars will kill the idea itself of the car. Personally, I’m not that worried about that; horses have not been a primary means of transport for maybe a century, and yet there still seem to be plenty of enthusiasts who enjoy them. I rode my bike side-by-side with a horse just last weekend.

No, my main concern is about the process of getting to fully self-driving cars. Today, we have cars with all sorts of safety features such as radar cruise control and lane-departure warnings. These already add up to a limited self-driving capability – level 2 or perhaps even 3 in the NHTSA definition. I have used it myself on the German Autobahn, with my hire car staying in its lane, following curves in the road, and accelerating or braking with the traffic, including coming to a complete stop.

I was never able to get out a book or just climb into the back seat for a nap, though. I always had to remain alert and engaged in case of any failure of the self-driving systems. Ultimately, I found this more wearing than just driving myself, and so I disengaged all the systems, got off the clogged-up Autobahn, and found myself a twisty and more engaging alternative route where I could concentrate fully on the driving.

This is the "uncanny valley" problem of self-driving cars: in order to get to full autonomy, we have to deal with a transition period where the automated systems are not yet good enough to do the job, but they are already good enough for drivers to become distracted and disengaged from the process of driving. The risk is that when the systems fail, the driver is not able to re-establish situational awareness and take control quickly enough to avoid an incident. We saw this scenario play out with tragic consequences when a self-driving Uber car struck and killed a woman earlier this year.

This problem of operator attention is of course not unique to cars, and may in fact have played a part in the tragic Lion Air crash in Indonesia. As part of the investigation of that crash, it was uncovered that a faulty air-speed sensor may have been the proximate cause of the accident, leading to the plane’s avionics mis-identifying the situation as a stall and putting the nose of the plane down to recover the speed necessary to get out of that stall.

The FAA has now issued a directive to operators of the plane to update their manuals. The linked article includes this image, purportedly from an internal Boeing magazine, describing the steps involved in identifying and correcting this situation:

You’re a pilot, climbing on autopilot on a routine departure – so you don’t have much airspeed or altitude to play with. Suddenly for no apparent reason the plane pitches nose-down. You have to diagnose the problem correctly, disengage a bunch of systems, and recover manual control. It’s a hard task, even for trained aircraft pilots.

Now imagine the same situation in a self-driving car. You’re on the phone, thinking about something else, and suddenly the car is drifting across lane markings, straight towards a concrete highway divider.

How do you rate your chances?

It is true that these systems will only improve with real-world usage and with more data to learn from, but their marketing and usage need to be aligned to their actual capabilities and failure modes, not what we wish they would be or what they might be in ideal conditions. New interface paradigms may also be required to set operators’ experience accordingly.

Until we get there, a sensible minimum standard seems to be that we should not expect drivers to do anything as a matter of course that is difficult even for trained airline pilots.

Listen To The Heart

I am now the proud owner of my third1 Alfa Romeo! Well, technically I’ve only made the down payment: the car itself will arrive in a couple of months, so a good late Christmas / early birthday present for me.

Much as I would have loved a Giulia Quadrifoglio, Italy’s horsepower tax (spit) tips that over from "maybe if I scrimp & save" to "sorry, not going to happen". What I really would have liked would have been a Giulia Sportwagon, but Alfa Romeo in their wisdom don’t make one of those. I wonder if this is the American influence speaking, as they have made wagon versions of all their previous cars, going back to the 33 Giardinetta?

Regardless, this lack of a wagon option means that I had a difficult decision between heart (Giulia Veloce – most of the good bits of the Quadrifoglio, but with a thriftier two-litre twin-turbo four-pot, sending 280 bhp to all four wheels) and head (Stelvio Bi-Tech – basically a Giulia on stilts and with a bigger boot).

I had a good long test drive of a Giulia Super, which the dealer had ready to go. This is basically the spec I wanted for a Veloce, but in a lower state of engine tune – 200 bhp instead of 280. As with most modern cars, the Giulia features keyless-go, which I don’t have strong feelings about one way or the other. Alfa Romeo however have taken this excuse to put the start/stop button on the steering wheel, Ferrari-style, which is admittedly a gimmick, but a good one.

Straight away the impressions were good, with light and sensitive steering, reacting instantly to inputs and giving good feedback through the wheel. The Alfa is not only far lighter than the Beast, it’s also the lightest of its peers, usefully edging the BMW 3-Series, the Mercedes-Benz C-Class, and the Audi A4. You can feel this lightness as soon as you turn the wheel, with a level of agility and responsiveness the others struggle to match. The transmission sends drive to all four wheels, but in normal use it’s heavily rear-biased, which also helps.

Even in lukewarm 200 bhp spec, this motor pulls well. Again, the lack of weight helps here, but it’s a willing engine, and it sounds good too. The eight-speed ZF gearbox is technically the same unit as in the Volvo V70 I also drove, but the feeling could not be more different. Left to do its own thing, it shuffles gears quite competently, and indeed invisibly, especially in normal driving. However, should you be in the mood, there are those paddles behind the steering wheel… Slap the BMW-style gearstick left into manual mode, and you are in full control, and I do mean full. The dealer sales rep was sitting beside me, so I couldn’t get too extreme, but I tried hard to catch the system out, and I simply couldn’t.

Alfa Romeo also offers its DNA drive-mode selector, and the three modes are indeed usefully different. You start in N, for Normal, which is a good description. In this mode everything is, well, normal; the car will trickle around town quite happily without making a fuss, but will also downshift promptly if you put your foot down. D is for Dynamic mode, and everything gets just a bit sharper-edged; the engine note hardens, the transmission hangs on to gears for a bit longer, the traction control relaxes a bit (it can’t be turned fully off except on the Quadrifoglio), traction shifts entirely to the rear wheels, and so on. The test car did not have the sport suspension fitted that I specced for my own car, but that is also affected. The third option in the DNA system is A, the All-Weather mode, with the traction control primed and ready to step in at any moment. This mode can also be used for motorway cruising, as a sort of "eco" mode, where it is quiet and unobtrusive.

In addition to the shape of the gear lever, there is something else in the cabin that is eerily reminiscent of BMW, and that is the in-car entertainment system. There is a click-wheel which is almost entirely identical to an iDrive controller, driving a menu system which is also very similar to the BMW setup. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and indeed BMW’s iDrive is by far the best input system I have used. I can’t get on with Mercedes-Benz’s COMAND system, and Audi’s MMI is just a mess. Tesla-style systems that hide all the controls in a touchscreen are actively dangerous. Instead, the click-wheel systems that Alfa Romeo and BMW use allow drivers to memorise common paths through the system – two clicks left, press, three clicks right, press – for repeated tasks, without taking their eyes off the wheel.

I don’t intend to spend much time with the Giulia’s onboard systems, though, since it has a very good CarPlay implementation. Upon connecting the phone, the whole screen – a very nice 8.8" TFT, merged beautifully into the curve of the dashboard – is taken over by the CarPlay display, which can be navigated both by touch, and by that wonderfully tactile click-wheel, with its direct haptic feedback.

Everything you touch in the Giulia’s cabin feels premium. In classic Alfa style, the instruments are very much focused on the driver, but all the control surfaces are pleasant, the ICE is competent but not intrusive, and all the other controls fall easily to the hand. The steering wheel in particular is a joy, adjusting easily to suit even my difficult requirements: I have long legs and so I sit quite far back, but even though I also have long arms, I like the steering wheel relatively close to me, low down but not so much that it obstructs the instruments. The seats also provide great lateral support during cornering.

When it comes to practical aspects, the boot is larger than I expected, but still compromised (as compared to a wagon) by a big cross-member that sits below the rear screen. Rear leg room is also perfectly adequate, even behind me, but not perhaps ample. These considerations persuaded me to also test-drive the Stelvio SUV.

This is basically the same car, just with longer suspension travel and a larger boot (and apparently slightly more rear leg room). This time I did get to drive the 280 bhp engine, but while I could feel the extra power, its impact was somewhat blunted by the extra weight. The Stelvio is still a light car for what it is, but it’s inevitably taller than the Giulia, and you do feel that when cornering. There is apparently an active suspension pack which mitigates some of the body roll, but it’s throwing technology at a physics problem which can be avoided by simply not jacking a Giulia up on stilts in the first place.

Ultimately what made my decision was that, after the Beast, I’ve had my fill of SUVs and want to get back low to the ground. I would have happily bought a Giulia Sportwagon, but since Alfa Romeo won’t sell me one, I think I can make the saloon work. The Stelvio is a fine car and I would have been happy with it, but the Giulia is just better at being a car.

I did make a bit of a gamble on the colour, opting for what is apparently the rarest colour in the gamut: Grigio Lipari. In the configurator it looks almost burgundy, but in person it’s a rich grey-blue, shifting between one and the other depending on the light, with reddish flecks embedded beneath the surface. I think it will look great, especially with the diamond-cut version of the classic Alfa "telephone dial" wheels, but we shall see when it arrives.

I’m just happy to have rejoined the ranks of the Alfisti.


  1. I previously owned a 156 with the last generation of the venerable Busso V6 engine, as well as a 147 Blackline with every "sport" option in Alfa’s catalogue. I thoroughly enjoyed both, and neither ever gave me any trouble. So much for Alfas’ reputation! 

How To Throw Away A Sale

When it came to be time to replace the Beast, I had a shortlist to work from. I initially wanted a Mini Clubman, in John Cooper Works trim, but was informed by She Who Must Be Obeyed that this was simply not big enough to act as the main family car.

I therefore went back to the drawing board, refined the list to two cars, and started arranging test drives.

The first dealership I visited was Volvo, as I liked the idea of a plug-in hybrid1, and nobody else seems to build them as cars – not SUVs, not city runabouts, but regular-sized family cars. The V70 seemed to fit the bill: gigantic load capacity, Volvo reputation for safety and reliability, and a plug-in hybrid drivetrain available. The Volvo setup even promised some potential for fun, as the hybrid system allows the driver to ghost silently around town on electric power alone, drive normally using the petrol engine, or combine both for a 400 bhp hit.

Unfortunately it was not possible to arrange a test-drive of the hybrid option. This was my first warning sign, especially when I tried other dealers in nearby cities and nobody had one to drive, not even fitted to a different car (the same drivetrain powers the larger V90 wagon, as well as the XC60 and XC90 SUVs and S70 and S90 saloons). I am not excited by the idea of owning some sort of unicorn and potentially having to wait for parts to be shipped from China if anything goes wrong.

Regardless, I agreed to test-drive a V70 with the popular D4 drivetrain. This is a common-or-garden turbo diesel four-pot, which sounds quite clattery from the outside of the car. On the inside, Volvo’s usual understated Scandinavian luxury muffles the racket to a distant drone, but it’s never a particularly pleasant sound.

That first impression of luxury was short-lived, though. The test-drive car had a middle-of-the-road Business spec, which looked fine but did not quite live up to its billing when it came to various important touch-points. The engine is started by twisting a little knob, which felt fiddly and flimsy. The steering wheel was nice enough, but had some very rough stitching right where the driver’s thumbs rest. The buttons all felt plasticky, too.

These may seem like quibbles, and indeed I would happily be able to put up with them on a Škoda, or indeed on something that compensated by being more driver-focused. However, the Volvo’s big selling point is that it’s a nice, safe place to be. It plays on that Scandinavian notion of hygge, which is probably best translated as "coziness", although that does not quite cover it. For a car this expensive, everything I touch has to fit into that overall impression. Instead, every touch point I came in contact with undermined that cozy feeling.

The next disappointment was the in-car stereo. New Volvos have an iPad-style portrait-oriented touchscreen high in the middle of the dashboard. This is fine, although I found it a bit distracting even on a brief test-drive. It doesn’t go quite as far as new Teslas in putting all the controls there, but it goes far enough in that direction that I would worry about not being able to access controls easily on the move without taking my eyes off the road.

CarPlay is also a must-have feature for me, and as Volvo was a launch partner of this technology, I was looking forward to testing out their implementation. Unfortunately, it took far too long to get my phone recognised by the Volvo’s systems, and once it was connected (by cable – still no wireless CarPlay 2), instead of taking over that big screen, it just created a little letterbox window towards the bottom, with the rest of the Volvo chrome still cluttering up the rest of the screen. The resulting CarPlay view was actually smaller than my iPhone X’s screen, which undermines a large part of what makes CarPlay useful in the first place.

The driving experience was pretty much as expected: very competent in a quiet way, and almost entirely insulated from the road. In typical Volvo fashion, the V70 is loaded with safety systems, all of which seem to be well thought out. I particularly liked the lane-departure warning system, which gently guides you back into your lane if you stray across a white line – unless your indicator is on, in which case it assumes you know what you’re doing. It doesn’t vibrate the wheel or do anything annoying, instead simply applying a little extra pressure to the power steering. It’s possible to override this guidance quite easily, but it’s just enough to catch your attention. Imagine Jeeves delivering a quiet cough to draw your attention to a potentially unfortunate choice, but resigning himself with a pained look if you do insist.

Despite this late break, and the truly cavernous boot ("trunk" for American readers), the test drive was a bit of a let-down. I don’t know whether my reaction might have been different if I had been able to drive the sportier hybrid R-Design spec I had in mind, but I got out of the car with that feeling I get when I hand back a rental car: "that was perfectly fine, but I’m glad I’m going back to my own car now". In other words, I had no intention of spending my own money on the thing, especially once the salesman made it clear he was extremely uninterested in offering me any reasonable trade-in on the Beast.

A pity; I was ready to embrace the green EV/hybrid lifestyle, but it seems it was not meant to be – yet, at least.


  1. Pure EVs are not really an option in Italy. I did test-drive a Tesla around the time I bought the Beast, because all of my friends and colleagues in California raved about all the state and federal subsidies they got, the access to HOV lanes, and so on and so forth. Unfortunately, not only does Italy not offer any of that – EVs are subject to all the normal taxes2 – because of the Tesla’s power rating, it also came in for an additional horsepower tax, with no discount for its non-polluting nature. In the same way, there was no equivalent of the HOV lane access, or London’s free access to the congestion charging zone. In other words, a Tesla Model S would cost in the same range as a BMW M5, and I wasn’t able to justify that even if I had had the budget. 

  2. Matters have improved slightly, although in a very Italian way: the taxes are still due, but then a partial rebate can be applied for through the regional government. It’s still not quite worth it, especially given that roll-out of the charging infrastructure around here appears to have stalled. With the recent ban on older diesels, maybe that calculation will change in time for my next car. Conspiracy theorists might also suspect that government incentives will coincidentally be introduced once FCA get around to launching a hybrid offering of their own. 

End Of Term Report

I bought a new car today. More on that later, but for now, I wanted to give a proper send-off to the Beast.

The Beast in a rare moment of looking small beside another car

Oh yes, it’s still in rude good health. I’m not selling it because of anything that is wrong with it, it’s just time to move on.

It is true that the Beast did finally blot its previously-unblemished copybook when it came to maintenance. While the Turbo engine is more reliable than the non-Turbo ones in this generation of Cayenne, it does have one notorious Achilles’ heel: Porsche engineers, in their wisdom, decided to fit two cooling pipes made of plastic that run basically right under the engine. Shockingly, this turns out to be a terrible idea, and the pipes are known to fail. Unfortunately, because it’s a horrible job – not quite engine-out, but near enough – it’s not the sort of thing you would do as preventative maintenance, or that you could tack on to routine maintenance. As an owner, you cross your fingers and hope.

Well, my luck finally ran out over the summer, and I had to get a tow back from a dinner in the wee hours of the morning, and then pay an unconscionable amount of money to have the busted plastic pipes replaced with more robust aluminium versions. I don’t think I’ve ever paid a bill that had a worse ratio of parts to labour! Then again, I got off fairly lightly compared to one owner, who had the broken pipes dump coolant right onto the tyres and ended up wrecking his car as a result.

Apart from that, though, the Beast is still a beast. Its party trick is still the mountains of torque that it can throw at any problem. It’s not that good at a standing start, because the traction control and gearbox do not get on particularly well together. I mean, it can be done, and 0-100 kph in five seconds flat is nothing to sneeze at in something that big and heavy, but the process is so unpleasant if you have any mechanical sympathy at all that it’s not really worth doing regularly.

Moving smoothly off the line is a better bet. Once the Beast is rolling, the combination of big-displacement V8 and a brace of turbochargers gives in-gear acceleration that can only be described as "violent". Motorway slip roads are the perfect environment for this sort of thing; as the on-ramp straightens out, simply floor the throttle. The Tiptronic transmission takes a moment to gather its thoughts, then drops into third, a donkey kicks you in the small of your back, and suddenly you are going very fast indeed, with the V8 bellowing and the turbochargers adding a shrill wail over the top. Around 6500 rpm – not too shabby for a big turbocharged lump like this – the Beast changes up into fourth and continues accelerating just as violently, and by the time fifth gear shows up it’s high time to back off the throttle and coast back down to the speed of the traffic.

That rush never gets old, and the looks of shock and awe on the face of other drivers when they see a big SUV move like that are just the icing on the top.

However, the Beast is getting to be an old lady, and there are more big bills lurking in its future. The timing belts will need doing soon, as will all four brake disks. I also had to send the summer tyres for recycling, and the sorts of compounds the Beast requires are fearsomely expensive, especially given the sheer acreage of rubber involved. Finally, even though it’s over ten years old and therefore benefits from the maximum discount, Italy’s horsepower tax is just too painful to deal with any longer.

I’ll miss the space, the comfort (enhanced by the air suspension), and the commanding driving position, not to mention the enormous thrust. I won’t miss the thirst, though, especially since the V8 is mostly inaudible from the cabin in normal driving, without any deep-chested burble to make you feel like you are getting your money’s worth for all that petrol you’re burning. It’s also worth noting that I used the locking diffs and low-range gearbox exactly twice in nearly four years of ownership, thereby proving every stereotype about SUVs’ typical usage patterns.

So it’s farewell Beast, and hello younger, more supple model. More on the car hunt soon, as well as the final choice!

Foundations

What Rome is mainly built on is Rome.1

This is a view of the foundations of the Roman hotel I stayed in last night. Luckily, being a fairly modern structure, they built it in a way that exposes what lies underneath.

There’s an enterprise software architecture metaphor in there, and in fact I already wrote about it:

People, including many Italians, bemoan the lack of infrastructure around here. The problem is that as soon as you sink a shovel in the ground, you hit a priceless historical artefact. Then you have to spend months digging it out with toothbrushes and tweezers, and then you get to shovel a few more loads before there is another clunk and everything has to stop again. I shudder to think of how many times things have just been quickly reburied so as not to delay work... Here's an example from my home town: this monstrosity was built over the city amphitheatre, and it looks like the replacement will still not allow the ruins to be visited.

This is very much like what happens in established corporations. You can't just sink a shaft or dig a trench, because there are very good chances you will interfere with something that's already there. You also wind up with your brand new shiny thing still relying on thousand-year-old culverts for its drainage. You have to allow for all of these things when you plan what you want to build next.

Remember this when you bemoan how change-averse large companies are: if you don’t plan changes carefully, you risk breaking something critical somewhere else. This doesn’t mean you can’t change things, just that you have to go about it carefully.

Here is an example from London of major change, carefully planned, and done right.


  1. With apologies to Sir Pterry: "But then, practically everywhere in Ankh-Morpork had cellars that were once the first or even second or third floors of ancient buildings, built at the time of one of the city’s empires when men thought that the future was going to last for ever. And then the river had flooded and brought mud with it, and walls had gone higher and, now, what Ankh-Morpork was built on was mostly Ankh-Morpork. People said that anyone with a good sense of direction and a pickaxe could cross the city underground by simply knocking holes in walls." Excerpt from The Truth

Start to Stop

Today I had to join a call with Lync, or Skype for Business, or whatever it’s calling itself this week. As usual the process was unnecessarily painful.

In particular, this screen always trips me up:

First of all, don’t ask me whether I joined successfully! You are supposed to tell me – or better yet, don’t tell me, just do it.

At this stage, this is the only Skype for Business window that I see, so no, I have not joined successfully – so "Skype for Business Web App" asks me whether instead I would like to join using "Skype for Business Web App". You what?

Hitting that link opens up a separate Skype for Business Web App window, in which I can actually join the meeting, only lightly dazed by the force of the facepalming I endured on the way there.

This is some quality Microsoft UI, along the lines of their famous "to shut down, use the Start menu" flow.

Companies Turning Down My Money

I’m always going on about my troubles with the Italian iTunes Store, but I realise people might not know what that means in practice, so I wrote up a real-world scenario.

I wonder what movie we could watch on Sunday night – maybe that 1969 classic, The Italian Job?1

First hurdle, finding the thing. Searching for "the italian job", as any reasonable (meaning "naive and inexperienced") person might, brings no results.

As this is not my first rodeo with the Italian iTunes Store, I fall back to searching for everything Michael Caine has been in – and sure enough, after the various Batman and Kingsman films, there is… Un colpo all’italiana. Sure, why not.

But once again, this is not my first rodeo – and therefore, instead of just hitting that "Buy" button, I know to scroll down and check one more thing:

Do you see it?

Look under Language: there is only one entry, "Italian (Stereo)". No English audio.

I refuse to pay ten Euros to hear Michael Caine dubbed into Italian, thank you very much. If you won’t sell things to people, they won’t buy them.

Guess we’re watching something else, kids.


  1. We will not speak of its 21st century would-be imitators, thank you. 

Which Algorithms Will Watch The Algorithms?

This week’s AI-powered scandal is the news that Amazon scrapped a "secret" AI recruiting tool that showed bias against women.

Amazon.com Inc’s machine-learning specialists uncovered a big problem: their new recruiting engine did not like women.

The AI, of course, has no opinion about one women one way or the other. Amazon HR's recruitment tool was not “biased" in the sense that a human recruiter might be; it was simply unearthing existing bias:

That is because Amazon’s computer models were trained to vet applicants by observing patterns in resumes submitted to the company over a 10-year period. Most came from men, a reflection of male dominance across the tech industry.

If you train your neural networks with biased data, you are just re-encoding and reinforcing the bias! This was not news even in 2015 when Amazon started this experiment. However, it illustrates a general problem with AI, namely its users’ naive tendency to take the algorithms’ output at face value. As with any automated system, human experts will be needed to make intelligent evaluations of the output of the system.

Train The Guardians

The need for secondary evaluation is only going to increase as these systems proliferate. For instance, Canada now plans to use AI to decide immigration cases. If your request for a visa is rejected by an expert system, what recourse do you have? What if the basis of rejection is simply that claims like yours were usually denied in the past?

These concerns will become more and more critical as AI tools continue to become more mainstream.

"The computer says no" has always been the jobsworth’s go-to excuse. But who programmed the computer to say "no"? The fact that the computers are now programming themselves to say "no" does not absolve organisations of responsibility. The neural networks are simply reflecting the inputs they are given. It is on us to give them good inputs.

After all, we are educating our own children.

Going From Caffeine To Amphetamine

No, this is not a post about controlled substances – even though it is Friday!

In the past, I have recommended some useful apps to improve your presenter game, including a great little tool called Caffeine. Unfortunately the upgrade to macOS Mojave seems to have finally killed off Caffeine, which is fair enough really since it has not been updated in some years.

Luckily, there is a fantastic alternative called Amphetamine, which sticks to Caffeine’s attractive pricing of "free". It does the same job that Caffeine did, sitting quietly in the menu bar until you need to prevent your display from sleeping – perhaps because it is connected to an external projector and you are trying to show something other than your cool screensaver.

On top of that, though, Amphetamine offers a ton of configuration options. My favourite is that you can create triggers which will automatically prevent your Mac from sleeping in certain conditions. I created a trigger so that my Mac will automatically stay awake when I connect my presentation remote, for instance.

If you don’t want a pill icon in your menu bar, you can also change it to something else, including a version of Caffeine’s classic coffee cup.

Do check out Amphetamine and let me know how you get on.