The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Wednesday, February 10, 2010
Current Affairs ... Photo ...

We dodged the snow bullet last Saturday, see my last blog; but we couldn’t hide from this one. Here are some views from my little corner.

TOYOTA THOUGHTS: The recent news that Toyota has been selling faulty cars that need a recall in order to avoid crashing is a bit disturbing. Toyota has been thought of as the gold standard for quality at a reasonable price. (Well, relatively reasonable; car prices are NOT reasonable anymore). But recent Corollas have sticky accelerators (gas pedals), and Priuses have something wrong with their anti-lock ABS brake systems. I think that each situation raises a different concern, aside from the prime concern of fixing the cars before someone gets killed.

As to the sticky accelerators — that looks like corporate greed at work. It could be that Toyota was trying to maintain its bottom line (profit) in spite of declining sales during the economic recession by cutting costs (and quality / safety margins). That’s an old story, greed.

But the Prius situation might be a different duck, something more scary in a way. That one looks like a complex machine gone astray, doing certain things that the designers did not anticipate in certain conditions. That’s the nightmare of our increasingly computerized, increasingly automated world. We cede more and more responsibility to keep us safe to machines, and we build in safety factors so that those machines won’t fail us when we need them. But our machines are becoming so complex and inter-dependent that we cannot forsee all possible behaviors that these machines might have.

The Prius actually has two brake systems controlled by a single pedal and computer program; one system is an old-fashioned hydraulic friction brake, and the other is a regenerative system based on magnetic generator drag on the axle. The computer is programmed to make the two systems harmonize, and avoid locking the hydraulic pads during emergency braking. But the hydraulic system is subject to all sorts of changes based on pad wear, temperature, wet road conditions, etc. The computer may not know its every response in every conceivable condition. As with the butterfly in chaos theory, just a small deviation between the program and reality in one system can be amplified as it interacts repeatedly with other systems. Thus, no braking when brakes are needed.

What is scary about this is that there really is no cure until after it happens. If you want to have complex, interdependent machines that do many things very efficiently, you take the risk that there is an odd, unanticipated reaction that will occur at some point with serious, possibly fatal consequences. We might just have to accept this as the “lay of the land” in the information age.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:52 pm      
 
 


  1. Beautiful photos.

    I cannot help but relate this in my muddled mind to the general human condition. We seek after perfection, we worship it, whether in our bodies, relationships or inventions, these are all projections of our idealised image of ourselves really. So we make the cracks smaller and smaller until we can hardly see them, and we think we are invincible, but instead these insidious tiny cracks become more and more lethal.

    I like your insights. They make me think more into my own. Thanks.

    Comment by spunkykitty — February 10, 2010 @ 9:56 pm

  2. Jim,
    As usual, excellent pictures. As I look at them I think how lovely snow (especially BIG snow)looks in pictures; yet the reality of actually getting out in it, having to travel to work, having to shovel it, having to protect oneself and one's loved ones from it is so much work that after a good dose of such "beautiful snow" one tends to rethink how one regards such major snowstorms. And I think of how often I've been urged to move to Arizona. Yet just yesterday, after measuring 8+ inches of new snow in my backyard, I thought if I moved to AZ, I'd miss the seasons.

    As regards your TOYOTA THOUGHTS: Amazing, isn't it how one day Toyota is considered one of the best, most reliable cars on the road. Then the next day (practically literally) their cars are considered murderous hazards by everyone.

    Actually, Toyota has NOT fixed the cars before people have been killed. There have been some horrendous accidents where several people were tragically killed. I have heard played on the news 911 calls that ended in the loss of life of several people in at least one car. (These calls are almost too distressing to listen to as one realizes one is hearing the last words of people who are doomed because they are hurtling down the road to their deaths–even putting all others on the road at the same time in danger.)

    I find myself asking why there is not some way for people to override the computer systems in these cars–especially on such crucial things as accelerators and brakes? In the instance of the people in the 911 phone call above, they were not even able to turn off the ignition–no override at all available to them.

    This problem shows that it is crucial for "us" in general as thinking individuals in an information age to realize that there is a special difference between the computer on our desktop and the computer(s) in such things as automobiles.

    In computers in cars some crucial override of the computer must be given to the driver as these problems prove that to allow the computer to take over the functions that rightly belong to humans is foolhardy in the extreme. Allowing our desktop computers to perform functions whose workings we may not fully understand is totally different from allowing computers in cars to function without some override for the humans riding in the cars–and the humans must be aware of how to use such overrides. Aren't overrides and how to use them automatically included in the astronauts' training in how to fly the various aspects of the transportation vehicles that get astronauts into space? Why should "earthbound" drivers not have the same such overrides? Seems like pure foolishness to me.
    MCS

    Comment by MCS — February 11, 2010 @ 7:12 am

  3. The Toyota problem is simple if looked at correctly. The Priuses are breaking unexpectedly to avoid their manic cousins, the runaway Corollas. :-D

    You also mentioned the 'Butterfly' in chaos theory. Hmmm, did you mean the old saying about a butterfly flapping it's wings in China and causing a hurricane here, or the butterfly shaped chart that is caused by strange attractors? Or are the Butterflies themselves in Chaos? :-P

    Well, we can only change the last one thru the simple solution of renaming them Flutter-bys :-)

    Comment by Will Doohan — February 12, 2010 @ 6:12 pm

  4. Will,

    I think we're all in chaos these days, along with the butterfly / flutter-bys! Crazy weather will do it (Washington DC buried in snow, Vancouver is melting). That Lorenz strange attractor chart is based on a model of weather patterns, IIRC; and those patterns are partly determined by those butterflies over China. So we have butterflies causing butterfly-like patterns (they are pretty good at Brownian motion).

    And until things get better, we also need to stay out of the way of those accelerating Corollas and brake-less Priuses!

    Comment by Jim — February 15, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

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