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AI-based self-driving cars will be off-limits for gearhead tinkerers, who cannot assume the AI driving system will spontaneously figure out what changes have been made to the vehicle. (Credit: Getty Images) 

By Lance Eliot, the AI Trends Insider   

Turn a wrench. As you might know, that is the customary parlance used to refer to a car enthusiast (they can “turn a wrench” or mechanically work on a car). Such devotees are also characterized as motorheads or, in other countries, a petrol-head (there is an ongoing debate about whether this “petrol” reference is going to be fitting amidst an era of EVs).    

In any case, these are clearly aficionados that relish tinkering with automobiles. 

You certainly must know this type of person, or perhaps you are an avid member of such a venerated group. The moment a car comes down the street, these enthusiasts (fanatics, some insist) are quick to size-up the vehicle and declare it to be either a worthy prize or a potential piece of junk. There is usually no in-between. Someone that prides themselves on knowing about cars is apt to make quick, razor-sharp decisions about vehicular worthiness. 

There is a famous scene in the popular movie My Cousin Vinny in which actress Marisa Tomei is playing the role of Mona Lisa Vito and gets maneuvered by her fiancé Vinny into serving as an expert witness pertaining to “general automotive knowledge” (a memorable line from the movie). When asked why she might be able to serve in such a capacity, she rattles off an impressive list of car mechanic-related experiences, including tune-ups, transmission overhauls, engine work, and so on (you’ve got to watch the scene if you are car buff or automobile dilettante).   

Being able to tear apart and rebuild a car is certainly a notable skill and worthy of admiration. There are about 250 million cars in the United States alone, and we all are pretty much dependent upon the availability of functioning cars in our daily commutes and when running errands. Thankfully, there are those among us that have made a choice to conquer the complexities of knowing how cars work and are able to keep the world flowing accordingly.   

Another segment of society has a similar aficionado kind of attention, though not necessarily toward cars. I’m talking about technoids, gadget geeks, tech gurus, or those computer nerds (if you will), that love to tinker with computers. 

You must know someone like that, or, once again, perhaps you are like that. When a new computer comes into the marketplace, these enthusiasts are eager to read up on the specifications. They can readily assess whether the CPU is any good and will pontificate about how it is slower or faster than some other computer around.   

They typically own a slew of computers, many of which are opened up, and the circuit boards are grandly exposed for ease of access. Besides the hardware fascination, these computer whizzes are apt to have an arsenal of software utilities that they like to use. They can readily examine the computer bits and bytes underlying a hard drive and deploy arcane programs to play tricks on the hardware. 

Okay, so which of these two types of fans or enthusiasts are regularly referred to as gearheads? 

That’s a bit of a trick question. The moniker of being a gearhead can be applied to those that can turn a wrench, and likewise, you can say that those computer geeks are gearheads too.   

Some pundits would be quite willing to debate which of the two groups ought to be crowned as gearheads. Motorheads might indignantly state that only they are allowed to use that royal plumage. Of course, you might have those expert technoids that would irately differ and proclaim that they are the true bearers of the gearheads trophy. 

Rather than trying to split hairs, perhaps we can all get along and agree that the illustrious gearhead title can be equally shared. Sometimes the gearhead naming can refer to those that tinker with cars. Meanwhile, in the same breath, sometimes the gearhead designation refers to those that tinker with computers. 

Why all this discussion about gearheads and their tinkering on the venerable contraptions and devices of mankind? Because they are about to find themselves faced with a huge deflating disappointment, and it could just crush their august gearhead souls. Yes, this devastating blow could indeed happen due to the advent of self-driving cars. 

Wait for a second, you might be thinking, shouldn’t the emergence of self-driving cars be the dream of every gearhead?   

A self-driving car is a twofer, as it were. It is a car. And it is a computer, a very state-of-the-art computer that stretches the boundaries of modern-day computing. Self-driving cars seem to be the perfect new toy for gearheads. 

It is almost like it is birthday time for gearheads and they are getting their cake and the icing all at the same time. Motorheads would salivate at the car aspects. Technoids would slaver over the computer hardware and software.   

This is a match made in heaven. 

You can bring together the two groups. They can work hand-in-hand. They can also poke away at which self-driving car is the best, and which is the worst. There is an unexplored mountain here to be first delved into and today’s gearheads are front and center. The era of self-driving cars is just beginning to inch into view and now proffers the chance to forge a gearhead specialty that heretofore did not exist. 

Sorry, but you’ll need to put away those celebratory balloons and confetti. There won’t be any tinkering going on with those AI-based true self-driving cars. 

You know how your smartphone has a seal on it that says that if you open the thing up, you are voiding the warranty. Well, it is even worse when it comes to wanting to “open up” the innards of a self-driving car. That’s a big no-no. 

Self-driving cars are going to strictly off-limits to any kind of tinkering. I realize that many gearheads would say that they don’t care whether the manufacturer’s warranty gets voided or not. Gearheads would scoff at such a warning and likely proclaim that you don’t need and nor want that stupid warranty anyway. If you know what you are doing, you can do a much better job on any tinkering, and the only aspect the manufacturer can do well is to charge you an arm and a leg for something that you can do for pennies on the dollar by yourself.   

With self-driving cars, this notion of going beyond the stipulations and restrictions imposed by the automaker or self-driving tech maker is more than just a recommendation. It is a serious and airtight condition.   

Why so? 

Because if your smartphone gets messed-up by tinkering, it means you are having a bad day, while if a self-driving car gets messed-up and is allowed to get onto the roadway, you are going to have somber and immense consequences.   

Self-driving cars are about life-or-death. 

You don’t probably consider that each time you get behind the wheel of a car, you are facing life-or-death, but it is in fact the case. While driving a car, you are continually making life-or-death decisions that can impact your life, and the lives of those in other nearby cars, and the lives of pedestrians.   

The same can be said for self-driving cars. Every time a self-driving car gets underway on a driving journey, life-or-death is at stake. The passengers riding in the self-driving car are vulnerable to life-or-death circumstances, such as if a human-driven car suddenly rams into the self-driving car.   

For some odd reason, some of the general public seems to believe that self-driving cars will never get into car crashes. Perhaps this is partially fueled by those campaigns that claim erroneously that self-driving cars will ensure that we never have car crashes ever again. These are sometimes coined as the aim to achieve zero fatalities. As I’ve repeatedly stated, zero fatalities is a nice aspirational goal, but it is also misleading and won’t be accomplishable.   

Anyway, the point overall is that self-driving cars are not going to be amenable to the tinkerers and will have all sorts of safeguards and provisions to try and doggedly prevent any tinkering. You might think that this settles the matter and the gearheads will just have to accept the notion that they won’t be tinkering with self-driving cars.   

Regrettably, the earnest energies of gearheads are likely to compel them toward trying to do tinkering. You might even suggest that because self-driving cars are going to be extremely locked-down, this makes them an even more attractive target for tinkerers who believe they have the gosh-darn right to tinker if they wish to do so. 

In that sense, it is a dangerous kind of cat and mouse game. The automakers and self-driving tech firms will be devoutly trying to prevent tinkering, while some gearheads that won’t take no as an answer will be stridently seeking ways to do tinkering. 

A somewhat oddball or perhaps ironic basis for the tinkerers to defend their posture is that if they are prevented from tinkering, it is a good sign for self-driving cars. This implies that cybercrooks and evildoers that might want to subvert self-driving cars will also be prevented from performing their malevolent form of tinkering. By essentially forcing the automakers and self-driving tech firms into defending against everyday gearheads, this simultaneously is forging stronger protections against those having sinister intentions.   

That’s one of those around and around arguments and isn’t going to be resolved herein.   

The intriguing question for today’s discussion is this: Will AI-based true self-driving cars entirely be off-limits for any gearhead tinkering, and if so, why can’t tinkering be allowed?   

Let’s unpack the matter and see.   

For my framework about AI autonomous cars, see the link here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/framework-ai-self-driving-driverless-cars-big-picture/   

Why this is a moonshot effort, see my explanation here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/self-driving-car-mother-ai-projects-moonshot/   

For more about the levels as a type of Richter scale, see my discussion here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/richter-scale-levels-self-driving-cars/   

For the argument about bifurcating the levels, see my explanation here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/reframing-ai-levels-for-self-driving-cars-bifurcation-of-autonomy/ 

Understanding The Levels Of Self-Driving Cars   

As a clarification, true self-driving cars are ones where the AI drives the car entirely on its own and there isn’t any human assistance during the driving task.   

These driverless vehicles are considered Level 4 and Level 5, while a car that requires a human driver to co-share the driving effort is usually considered at Level 2 or Level 3. The cars that co-share the driving task are described as being semi-autonomous, and typically contain a variety of automated add-on’s that are referred to as ADAS (Advanced Driver-Assistance Systems). 

There is not yet a true self-driving car at Level 5, which we don’t yet even know if this will be possible to achieve, and nor how long it will take to get there. 

Meanwhile, the Level 4 efforts are gradually trying to get some traction by undergoing very narrow and selective public roadway trials, though there is controversy over whether this testing should be allowed per se (we are all life-or-death guinea pigs in an experiment taking place on our highways and byways, some contend).   

Since semi-autonomous cars require a human driver, the adoption of those types of cars won’t be markedly different from driving conventional vehicles, so there’s not much new per se to cover about them on this topic (though, as you’ll see in a moment, the points next made are generally applicable). 

For semi-autonomous cars, it is important that the public needs to be forewarned about a disturbing aspect that’s been arising lately, namely that despite those human drivers that keep posting videos of themselves falling asleep at the wheel of a Level 2 or Level 3 car, we all need to avoid being misled into believing that the driver can take away their attention from the driving task while driving a semi-autonomous car.   

You are the responsible party for the driving actions of the vehicle, regardless of how much automation might be tossed into a Level 2 or Level 3.   

For why remote piloting or operating of self-driving cars is generally eschewed, see my explanation here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/remote-piloting-is-a-self-driving-car-crutch/ 

To be wary of fake news about self-driving cars, see my tips here: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/ai-fake-news-about-self-driving-cars/ 

The ethical implications of AI driving systems are significant, see my indication here: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/ethically-ambiguous-self-driving-cars/ 

Be aware of the pitfalls of normalization of deviance when it comes to self-driving cars, here’s my call to arms: https://aitrends.com/ai-insider/normalization-of-deviance-endangers-ai-self-driving-cars/   

Self-Driving Cars And Tinkering   

For Level 4 and Level 5 true self-driving vehicles, there won’t be a human driver involved in the driving task. All occupants will be passengers; the AI is doing the driving.   

One aspect to immediately discuss entails the fact that the AI involved in today’s AI driving systems is not sentient. In other words, the AI is altogether a collective of computer-based programming and algorithms, and most assuredly not able to reason in the same manner that humans can.   

Why this added emphasis about the AI not being sentient? 

Because I want to underscore that when discussing the role of the AI driving system, I am not ascribing human qualities to the AI. Please be aware that there is an ongoing and dangerous tendency these days to anthropomorphize AI. In essence, people are assigning human-like sentience to today’s AI, despite the undeniable and inarguable fact that no such AI exists as yet. 

With that clarification, you can envision that the AI driving system doesn’t natively somehow “know” when someone decides to tinker with the vehicle. This is something that needs to be programmed as part of the capabilities of the self-driving car.   

Look at it this way. If a human driver walked up to their car, they might be able to discern that someone has messed around with their beloved vehicle (as an aside, obviously, some people don’t know much about cars and would be oblivious to any under-the-hood changes). A savvy driver that knows about cars could perhaps start the engine and immediately detect that the revving sounded different, or upon starting to roll forward could discern that the driving controls are reacting differently than normal, etc. 

Even the most casual driver would certainly observe if the tires on their car had been changed out (well, most would, hopefully). Those dull-looking tires that are now shiny and a larger-sized set would seemingly be noticeable.   

Likewise, most drivers can usually feel the difference in the car when they take it to the automobile repair shop and some significant alterations have been made. Maybe the brakes were on their last legs, and now they are fresh and ready to be used. The moment that the owner takes the vehicle down the street, and upon first using the brakes, they would likely realize that the braking action is much sharper. They also would not have to press as firmly on the brake pedal. And the prior squeaking sound is no longer heard now that the brakes were replaced. 

For self-driving cars, as mentioned there isn’t a human driver, and therefore no human driver that is going to be standing around or getting into the car and looking for changes that might have been made to the vehicle.   

What about those passengers? 

I dare say that most passengers would not have any semblance of whether a car has been tinkered with or not. Unless the tinkering was blatantly obvious, and only if the car was doing some pretty strange things, would most passengers ever detect that something has been altered. When you get into a ridesharing car being driven by a human, you as the rider take at face value that the car is in suitable shape. You assume, rightfully so, that the human driver is aware of the functioning of the car and you are trusting them to ensure that the car is journey viable. 

This emphasizes that the AI-based driving system has to include a provision of figuring out whether the self-driving car is in a proper drivable state. Think carefully about that point. 

Someone that does tinkering might be able to alter the car and yet the car is still fully drivable. Imagine that a gearhead decides to soup-up the engine of the self-driving car. The thinking by this enthusiast is that the car itself was limited to going say a max of 100 miles per hour, but it would be nifty if the car was enabled to go 120 miles per hour.   

Suppose that such a change was made to the vehicle. The vehicle is still drivable. It will be able to do all the driving functions it could do before the change. 

If the AI driving system is only seeking to ascertain whether the car is simply drivable, that is a far cry from ensuring that the car is still the same car that it once was. The AI driving system is usually devised to operate the car in a previously trained and known way (via the use of Machine Learning and Deep Learning). Crucial parameters have been established about how the car takes corners, what its stopping distance is, and so on.   

Changes made to the self-driving car that impact any of those factors are going to potentially confound the AI driving system. It might assume that the vehicle can be brought to a stop in some X number of feet. If a change has been made that means the vehicle now has to require some Y number of feet, say an amount more than X, this indubitably bodes for grave concern.   

Follow me on this driving scenario. 

The AI driving system is using sensors to detect the driving scene. Based on the detection, it is plotting out how to safely drive the car. If a pedestrian suddenly steps onto the street in front of the self-driving car, the algorithms involved in determining what driving action to take are going to calculate the appropriate action based on (for example) the setting related to the stopping distance of that car. 

Thus, the AI driving system might inadvertently calculate that the vehicle can be stopped in time, but we are supposing that someone has tinkered with the car and has unfortunately impacted the stopping distance capability. Unbeknownst to the AI driving system, it is using outdated or outmoded parametric values in calculating that the pedestrian can be avoided by simply employing the brakes. The reality might be that once the brakes are applied, a longer stopping distance is needed, and the vehicle “unexpectedly” rams into the pedestrian.   

The bottom line is that the self-driving car has to be kept intact in terms of the nature of the car and the nature of the AI driving system. They are paired up. They are on the same dance card. They need to be able to align together in a manner to ensure that safe and sound driving is going to occur. 

Any changes made to the car are likely going to require some form of changes to the AI driving system. Any changes made to the AI driving system might or might not require commensurate changes to the car. 

You cannot assume that the AI driving system will somehow spontaneously figure out what changes have been made to the vehicle. This kind of detection of the vehicle status, along with a dynamic real-time fluidity of the AI driving system, is not especially being crafted right now.   

There is enough to do in just getting the AI driving system to safely drive a given car from point A to point B. Trying to infuse into the AI driving system a capability of on-the-fly figuring out the nature of the vehicle, and then adjusting the driving aspects, accordingly, entails a much heavier lift and a vaunted facility of a much greater formation. 

Generally, the AI driving systems are being honed for specific makes and models of cars right now. Once the AI driving system has been so tailored, the expectation is that the make and model are going to stay as it is for that particular instance of the AI driving system. If there are any substantive changes to the vehicle, you would need to revisit the AI driving system and make adjustments correspondingly. 

You can’t just somehow grab the AI driving system from one type of car, and dump it into another car of a different make or model. A human driver would generally have that kind of flexibility, which shows you how amazing humans are, and for which we aren’t yet able to devise AI driving systems with that kind of adaptability (I’ve described how this might occur in the future, see my columns for coverage).   

For more details about ODDs, see my indication at this link here: https://www.aitrends.com/ai-insider/amalgamating-of-operational-design-domains-odds-for-ai-self-driving-cars/ 

On the topic of off-road self-driving cars, here’s my details elicitation: https://www.aitrends.com/ai-insider/off-roading-as-a-challenging-use-case-for-ai-autonomous-cars/ 

I’ve urged that there must be a Chief Safety Officer at self-driving car makers, here’s the scoop: https://www.aitrends.com/ai-insider/chief-safety-officers-needed-in-ai-the-case-of-ai-self-driving-cars/ 

Expect that lawsuits are going to gradually become a significant part of the self-driving car industry, see my explanatory details here: https://aitrends.com/selfdrivingcars/self-driving-car-lawsuits-bonanza-ahead/ 


I’m sure the gearheads are already toying with the idea that if they simply need to adjust one for the other, in the sense that if they change the car they need to change the AI driving system, or that if they change the AI driving system they might need to make changes to the car, and ergo the whole thing is easy peasy. In other words, no big deal. All they need to do is make sure that they make the needed set of changes.   

Not wanting to be the party spoiler, but remember that self-driving cars are about life-or-death consequences. 

Is the general public willing to accept the notion that a backyard tinkerer can make a change to a self-driving car, and the self-driving car is then going to roam around on our public roadways, though nobody else necessarily knows what changes were made and what effect they might have on the driving of the vehicle?   

The odds are that this is going to be rejected. The expectation will be that the automakers and self-driving tech firms will tightly lockdown their vehicles. Any tinkering under-the-hood should be immediately detected and an alert should be emitted. The AI driving system should have a double-check that tries to ensure that only if the vehicle is untouched will the AI driving system proceed to take the car on a driving journey.   

That’s a lot more than merely voiding a warranty. You can likely also see why there is a heated debate about the ownership of self-driving cars.   

Some assert that self-driving cars ought to only be owned and operated by major companies that will ensure that no tinkering takes place. If you put self-driving cars into the ownership hands of individuals, the angst is that they might do all sorts of wild things in an attempt to change up the vehicle and the AI driving system. 

A counterargument is that if the proper protections are put in place, which seems like a necessity, it doesn’t matter who owns or operates the vehicle. A large company that owns and operates a self-driving car can just as easily have someone that opts to mess around with the vehicle. The protective features should be mandatory and always checked, regardless of who happens to own or operate the self-driving car.   

A final twist is the question of maintenance and repairs for self-driving cars (see my analysis about this matter in my columns). Presumably, only bona fide and specially designated maintenance and repair shops will be permitted to work on self-driving cars. Unlike a conventional car, and as extolled earlier, there is concern that if just anyone can tinker with a self-driving car, even an otherwise reputable car repair facility unless they are carefully selected and monitored, the risks associated with self-driving car calamities will rise.   

For those gearheads eyeing the emergence of self-driving cars, one might say that curiosity killed the cat. Or perhaps that anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. I have a feeling though that they are already gearing up for the delights of tinkering with these ultimate gears-on-wheels machines and probably thinking to themselves, it is simply elementary, my dear Watson.   

Hopefully, no unauthorized “tinkerers” will opt to tamper with self-driving cars. We can aim to sleep well at night by the belief that even the more egregious and zealous of gearheads auto know better (yes, that’s a bit of a pun, and it assuredly won’t buff out).  

Copyright 2021 Dr. Lance Eliot  http://ai-selfdriving-cars.libsyn.com/website 

This post was first published on: AI Trends