For decades, one of the key collective aims of the automotive industry has been to maximise safety. From the introduction of mandatory seatbelts in the 1960s, through to increasingly stringent crash testing protocols today, safety has become highly regulated – and an important selling point for vehicles. As technology develops, so does the need to ensure systemic safety in new mobility.
As mobility evolves, however, the meaning of safety is changing dramatically. To understand why, let’s think about a couple of recent landmark events in the history of mobility.
In 2009, Tesla launched its first production car, the Roadster. Designed as a premium model which would enable the company to break into building mass-market vehicles, the Roadster was the first in a line of vehicles which includes the best-selling EV of all time, the Model 3.
Then, in 2015, Volkswagen announced its Modular Electrification Toolkit, or MEB. Described as the company’s ‘foundation for mobility of the future’, the MEB is a system for manufacturing EVs which will form the basis of Volkswagen’s fully electric future.
At a glance, it might seem like one of these events is significantly more historical and influential than the other. The Roadster, after all, came six years earlier; without it, and the vehicles which Tesla followed it with, Volkswagen might not have committed so fully to electrification; and, not for nothing, the Roadster ended up being the first car in history to be launched into deep space.
There’s a strong argument, however, that the MEB is a more important turning point for e-mobility – and not just because it came from a company so deeply invested in fossil fuels.
While automakers have been experimenting with and prototyping EVs for (in some cases) decades, that earlier work took a components approach, focusing on finding the batteries, motors, and other parts which meet the desired specifications and working from there to assemble the vehicle.
Of course, a vehicle’s parts do not operate in isolation, as their behaviour depends on how they interact with other parts of the system. Understanding the operation of that system, however, can be orders of magnitude more difficult than testing an individual component: a modern vehicle can require over 100 separate computer units to monitor and manage different processes, and to guarantee safety we need to predict how they can all affect each other.
As a reusable, standardised architecture, what the MEB represents is a recognition that a mature approach to EVs requires a systems approach which considers all of that complexity every step of the way. Or, in other words, while the Roadster might have been more meaningful to the consumer who could now purchase a highly capable EV, the MEB represents a step change in how EVs are designed.
Systematic safety and security
Through systems thinking, knowing that a flaw in one component can spell disaster elsewhere in the vehicle, we can start to see why the work of guaranteeing safety is changing. In fact, the more one pulls at the thread of what safety will mean in the future of mobility, compared to the safety challenges we are used to, the larger the problem turns out to be.
As an example, while a small error in a mechanical system is likely to lead to a small difference in operation, the smallest of computer errors – such as reading a 0 where a 1 should be – could mean that a necessary component does not turn on at all.
The outsize impact of minor errors also raises the risk caused by what engineers might call stochastic events, or random occurrences ranging from hyperlocal weather events to solar radiation which can interfere with sensors and processors. A flash of light, for instance, might not affect a simple dashboard camera but could have an unpredictable impact if that camera is part of the vehicle’s navigation system.
And, each of the thousands of digital components which go into a modern vehicle can carry a cybersecurity risk. The adage goes that someone trying to defend against cyberattacks needs to cover every single eventuality, while an attacker only needs to get lucky once. In a highly complex system, with life-and-death consequences for failure, that’s a huge task.
Building trust in new systems
The defining image of vehicle safety is probably the crash test: slow-motion footage of a tonne or two of material being sent at speed into a concrete block is a difficult visual to forget.
While the crash test isn’t going anywhere, automakers today will also be thinking about the potential for new kinds of unforgettable mental image – not in the test lab, but out on the streets. For EVs, digitally-managed systems introduce a risk of remote interference and spontaneous non-mechanical failures. For connected vehicles (whether they are collecting relevant information for the driver or providing retail and entertainment services) malfunctioning systems could generate unsafe situations which seriously damage trust.
And, perhaps most significantly of all, autonomous vehicles only have a path to acceptance and adoption if they can demonstrate genuinely reliable software which only fails in relatively safe, predictable ways. Whether that goal can be achieved in the near-future, given the context of chaotic real-world conditions, is still an open question.
In some ways, ‘the future of mobility’ is a misleading term, in that there are many possible futures being worked on, with very different consequences for how we move. What they all share in common, however, is a reliance on a deeper level of systems thinking which accounts for many more variables in how computerised systems interact with each other and the world.
And that means that safety, from component reliability all the way to defending against cyber attacks, is a concern that we can and should approach collectively as an industry.
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