Why Self Driving Cars Will Never Fly

Mar 24, 2018

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

Mar 24, 2018

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

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Like many photographers and film makers I have a drone in my gear closet – a DJI Mavic to be precise.

Every time I take it up for a spin I’m amazed at how ridiculously sophisticated this little machine is. It’s so easy to fly my 8 year old can do it with ease. It has all kinds of fail-safe features built in. It will even help you out and land itself if something goes wrong.

Except things do go wrong.

Which reminds me of self driving cars, because a lot of the technology and functionality that goes into a drone is like a prequel to what we can expect from self driving cars – both the good and the bad.

This article is a bit of a tangent from photography, so if you’re only interested in specific photography articles, you might want to skip this post.

However, technology and especially evolving and new technology are such an integral part of the modern photography industry, I think it’s interesting to imagine where the technology that we’re familiar with as photographers might evolve if it were mainstream.

So, based on my experience with my drone, here are five reasons why I think self driving cars will never fly.

Terminator Drone Helicopter Hunter Killer photography drone

Government Regulation

For no real reason except an irrational fear of something new, drones are effectively illegal to fly anywhere in the western world.

This hasn’t really effected drone users much since when laws are impractical and rarely enforced, people generally tend to ignore them.

This would be a different story for self driving cars where government regulation would most likely be strictly enforced (although many automobile laws are routinely ignored too – like speed limits).

Given government’s track record of losing their minds about new things, the only chance for self driving cars is if they become mainstream before government figures out how to over-regulate them to death.

Half-Assed Software

The current norm in software development is to get the product out to the customer now, then worry about fixing any problems with later updates. What’s even worse is that software developers seem to rely on the end user to identify their own bugs and feature issues.

This is such a ridiculous half-assed approach to product development – but software developers get away with it because it is relatively easy and inexpensive to send out updates.

I can’t fly my DJI Mavic without some sort of firmware update. The same goes with my cameras, computer, phone, TV…pretty much every single electronic device I own. All need constant updates to fix one problem or another that should have been fixed at the development stage.

It’s annoying as hell – and for obvious reasons cannot be the status quo for self driving cars.

Hacking Vulnerabilities

Speaking of half-assed software – software developer’s routine reliance on third-party and open source software are well know avenues to hacking vulnerabilities. As an example, DJI recently removed the JPush plugin from the DJI Go and DJI Go 4 apps – which had been collecting user data without its knowledge.

There are already devices available that can hijack a drone mid-flight!

And if a company with information as sensitive as Equifax (ie. pretty all of the personal information that exists for nearly half of the US population) allows itself to be hacked, does anyone honestly think that internet connected self driving cars won’t be hacked?

Surveillance By Corporate & Government

I am keenly aware that every time I fly my drone I am sitting on a pile of extremely sensitive data that would be a gold mine for our corporate and government overlords.

The US Army is so concerned about sensitive information being unknowingly transmitted to unknown entities that they banned the use of all DJI products – including drones.

This is going to sound like a little bit of conspiracy theorist – but could you imagine the data that could be collected from an internet connected self driving car!? Everything from your exact daily routine to video of you picking your nose while driving on the highway.

The FAA is already planning on developing a remote identification system for personal drones – so the same technology could certainly be applied to cars.

And given where all those electronic components will be manufactured (China – if not a hostile country, certainly a country that would have an obvious interest in covertly collecting data like that) it’s not much of a stretch to believe that surveillance mechanisms will be built right into the supply chain.

There are already networks of streetlights in the US that can detect gunshots and notify authorities – can you imagine what kinds of even more creepy surveillance could be built into a global network of self driving cars?

Do What We Say Or We’ll Trash Your Stuff

One further issue that ties into half-assed software, hacking vulnerabilities and surveillance is the current trend of drone and other electronics manufactures to force mandatory updates on users – with the threat of crippling your product if you don’t comply.

Even my Samsung smart-TV recently removed the Spotify and YouTube apps – both of which I use on a regular basis and are partially why I bought a Samsung smart-TV in the first place. Samsung didn’t ask, or tell the user – there was an update and then they were gone.

How it is legal to fundamentally change the capabilities of a product after it has been sold is beyond me – but the power this would give automobile manufactures to exploit buyers of self driving cars is extraordinary.

What Do You Think?

Is drone technology an indication of what we should expect from self driving cars?

Do you think any of these are legitimate problems, or something automobile manufactures will figure out?

Do you think I need a tinfoil hat?

Leave a comment below and share your thoughts!

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JP Danko

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

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5 responses to “Why Self Driving Cars Will Never Fly”

  1. Michael Chastain Avatar
    Michael Chastain

    “What do you think?”

    Well, I think the industry experts pouring billions upon billions into the technology know more than you do.

  2. Rick Avatar
    Rick

    Skynet will come however.

  3. Renato Murakami Avatar
    Renato Murakami

    It’s kind of a weird analogy, but let’s see here.

    “Which reminds me of self driving cars, because a lot of the technology and functionality that goes into a drone is like a prequel to what we can expect from self driving cars – both the good and the bad.”

    Not really, no. At least at this moment, the technology that goes into autonomous cars that are being tested are on a completely different level in comparison to the most advanced drones, like the DJI ones.

    I know they may seem kinda related, since the idea is running by themselves, but they really aren’t. Google, now Waymo, has been developing their systems independently since 2009, it’s gone through multiple steps of testing refinement, and whatnot. They have 5 million miles of road testing, and another 5 billion miles of simulated tests.

    TED Talks channel has a good doc about Lidar technology from 2015 given by a Google engineer, it’s a good basis to understand what autonomous cars are using nowadays. You may hate the concept all you want, but if you wanna know more about the tech, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiwVMrTLUWg
    There might be some cross section on using radars and whatnot, but even those work on a different level.
    The objectives are also different, so path of development also isn’t comparable. Drones would be closer to assistive driving, which is already out there for years now.

    Let’s take it to the point list.

    GOVERNMENT REGULATION

    I’ll agree with some points here, like overreaction and whatnot, but we’re not talking about DJI or other drone companies… we’re talking about some of the biggest corporations with the biggest lobbying groups – the car industry (Tesla, Volvo, Ford, Toyota, BMW, Nissan, GM, Honda, Hyundai, etc – they all have autonomous car projects or partnerships), Google, Uber – for better and worse.

    Cars from Google and even from Uber – the latter of which really shouldn’t be out there – are already on the streets. I really think it’s too soon, specially for Uber, but the fact that some cities allowed for this to happen shows how open (or forced open) at least parts of the government are to the idea.

    Time will tell, but I really don’t think governmental regulation will decide at once to stop all autonomous car development because there’s simply too much at stake. And it’s not only private money, there’s government money and bets in the mix too.
    Well, Trump is kinda unpredictable, so who knows?

    In any case, even strict regulation didn’t kill DJI, did it? Have we gone back to non autonomous drones? Isn’t DJI the absolute market leader by far right now exactly because of the autonomous capabilities? Why I thought it was a weird analogy in relation to the title.

    HALF-ASSED SOFTWARE
    HACKING VULNERABILITIES
    SURVEILLANCE BY CORPORATE & GOVERNMENT
    DO WHAT WE SAY OR WE’LL TRASH YOUR STUFF

    I think there’s a misperception here, but again, autonomous cars really don’t work like drones. Here’s some info:
    https://arstechnica.com/cars/2017/10/5-things-we-learned-from-waymos-big-self-driving-car-report/

    First, autonomous car systems won’t have an update cycle similar to drones… they were not made to have over the air updates, and the system is usually sandboxed (read isolated) from access.
    Of course, this still depends on the company and how they are designing their systems, but the ones that are working more seriously into it divised a way for the system to have no external access to them – much less Internet access.
    The base idea is that there will be no over the air data input into autonomous car systems able to control any significant systems – they will be able to output information though… well, at least for now.

    It can be a serious issue if clueless people are behind the designs… like shown by car manufacturers designing electronic car systems that can be hacked. They are still out there with no solution, but it’s one of the reasons why several car companies are chosing to bring autonomous capabilities by making partnerships with other companies instead of making their own. Or buying 3rd parties specialized on it.

    Surveillance could still be a reality, but the main reason some of the test cars are outputting information right now is for testing purposes. It’s in development, and they need the info for refinements and whatnot. But an autonomous car could be made to work in complete isolation – no data in, no data out. Internet is not a component part.
    If privacy becomes a huge priority, you can think about it like an airplane. Information stored on black boxes for accident accessment purposes, but you can’t really hijack and control an airplane over the Internet.

    But even if they were made into a private spying thing… well, people are buying smart home assistants with microphones and sometimes even cameras and putting inside their bedrooms. Can’t get much more invasive than that, with mainstream acceptance for some reason.

    As for “trashing your stuff”… there’s not much of an incentive for autonomous car companies to do this. DJI does geofencing and whatnot due to regulations.
    They could, of course, but it’s hard to see why they would. We don’t even have a real autonomous car regulation in place yet because it’s too soon, but it could be stipulated there what companies could or could not do with their cars.

    Btw, side recommendation, if you are worried about privacy at all don’t use smart TV functions from Samsung. Just don’t:
    https://www.bigclassaction.com/lawsuit/samsung-privacy-class-action-smart-tv-spying.php
    https://www.pcworld.com/article/2889472/samsung-faces-complaint-in-us-ftc-over-smart-tv-surveillance.html
    https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/feb/27/samsung-voice-recording-smart-tv-breach-privacy-law-campaigners-claim
    https://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2015/02/who-s-the-third-party-that-samsung-and-lg-smart-tvs-are-sharing-your-voice-data-with/index.htm

    The real difference though is this: autonomous cars are coming because we’re such shitty drivers that even a half assed autonomous car drives better than us, in a general sense. I personally don’t think it’s coming soon, easy, or in a balanced fashion. But the companies involved have so much power and money and so much at stake that in the worst case scenario, they will find someplace to put out a whole ton of those cars on the streets.
    I could consider it a pipe dream years ago when only Google was going at it, but at this point all major car manufacturers have invested in it.
    Even if end consumers rejects the concept, the corporations behind those technologies will just initially sell them to businesses – like delivery, transportation and ride-hailing.

    And then, when they have enough proof that car accidents dropped to the bottom there, they will start convincing people and governments to also adopt the technology.
    There will be huge discussions around this, probably a whole ton of litigation, and several missteps. But make no mistake – autonomous vehicles are becoming a thing. They are already being tested in… I think 3 or 4 US cities, and several other countries.

    1. JP Danko Avatar
      JP Danko

      Thanks for the super detailed feedback Renato (as always)! For the record – I can’t wait for computers to take over driving simply because humans are terrible drivers – the safety and efficiency improvements are off the chart. It seems like a lot of the issues involve steering – not braking and speed control. I’m happy to steer – all I need the car to do on it’s own is not run into shit. Just that would be a huge improvement that could be fully implemented right now.

  4. Trino Pam Avatar
    Trino Pam

    You article sounds like something written 100 years. Sad article.