Saturday, September 19, 2015

Blue Car, Blue Screen

Jay and I were coming back after our discussion session, wrapping up various loose thoughts from the evening. We are part of a group that meets the second Tuesday of every month to chat for an hour about a variety of topics. Called Pub Theology, it's always an interesting evening of thought provoking conversation which touches on society, philosophy and more. (See GA #890 on 12/22/12: "Beer Conversation and God"). Since his house is enroute to the meeting, I usually offer to pick him up and drop him off as I pass by.  

It was a warm night, and I had the music low and windows open on the car. My current vehicle is a bright blue Mini Copper, and it has a large screen right in the middle of the dash centered inside the car's signature speedometer. Since I was playing tunes off the USB stick I had plugged into the entertainment system, it displayed not only the name of the song and artist, but also a good sized thumbnail of the album cover. I wasn't really paying attention to the screen or the music, having seen and heard it all before, and was focused on Jay. That is, until I saw the BSOD.

That's "BSOD" as in "Blue Screen of Death." If you're a Windows user, you're likely familiar with this full stop that occurs when something goes suddenly, massively wrong. (If you're Mac user, stop smirking out loud. Now.) You can be in the middle of something as complex as rendering a video or as simple as replying to an email, and WHAM! You hear the bytes drop their collective pants, and a blue field with tiny white type fills your screen, informing you that something somewhere has completely, irrevocably failed. All you can do is restart, cross everything you have a pair of, and hope all is OK.

Wherever and whenever it last happened to you, odds are you were literally sitting down. Even if you were on a train or plane and were in motion, your computer likely had nothing to do with that movement. It was an annoyance for sure, but nothing more. And while I was in a sitting position as well, it was inside a roughly 3000 pound container of steel and fuel on a dark night on a windy road at over 40 miles per hour. Like most vehicles out there, more and more of its critical functions are controlled by a variety of interconnected computer systems. And the main screen had just gone blue.  

We're not talking hacking here, which has also been in the news of late. Several highly publicized stories have demonstrated more than just proof-of-concept. As Andy Greenberg wrote about one such demo in Wired, he was driving at 70 MPH on a highway in St. Louis: "Though I hadn't touched the dashboard, the vents in the Jeep Cherokee started blasting cold air at the maximum setting. Next the radio switched to the local hip hop station and began blaring Skee-lo at full volume. Then the windshield wipers turned on, and wiper fluid blurred the glass." It was all good fun until the hackers cut the transmission as a semi was coming up behind him. Luckily, he was able to roll down an exit ramp and pull into an empty lot to regroup. (As a direct result of this demo, Chrysler issued a recall for 1.4 million vehicles to plug a hole in the system that allowed it to happen.)

No, what we're talking here isn't hacking, but crashing. Something random had occurred in the file that was playing back, causing the processor to seize up. Thankfully, it wasn't a critical component, like one that controls the fuel mixture to the engine, or the way power is allotted to four-wheel drive system. It was just entertainment. But it doesn't take too much imagination to see how it could have been something more, and the consequences far more catastrophic than simply disrupting a song by Imagine Dragons.

I powered down the entertainment system, then back up. No harm, no foul. But think about that the next time you read about Google's self-driving cars. True, when they work, they are demonstrably better and safer drivers than many of the idiots on the road today. However, when they have issues, and they will, that Blue Screen of Death will take on a whole new meaning.


Marc Wollin of Bedford likes his Mini a lot. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at Glancing Askance, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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