Ed Wallace

Problems with Technology

By Ed Wallace

John Hetrick was an engineering technician working on military bases in Pennsylvania in the early 1950s; he had worked in and around torpedo manufacturing during the war. One day, while driving with his wife and daughter in their 1948 Chrysler Windsor, they rounded a bend on a rural road and saw that a boulder had fallen dead center in their lane. Slamming on the brakes and trying to negotiate around the boulder, Hetrick and his wife used the first line of defense for automotive safety in those days — they threw their arms out to try and stop their daughter from slamming into the metal dash. The Chrysler ended up on the side of the road, but fortunately no one was hurt that day.

That night he started thinking about what kind of safety device could protect the occupants in an automotive accident. He remembered that during the Second World War, when a torpedo’s compressed air tanks exploded during transportation they blew the torpedo’s protective canvas bag off. Hetrick thought the same type of dynamic could allow a similar canvas bag to come out of an automobile’s dashboard in the event of a crash, with the bag released and filled by compressed air, thereby saving the occupants from serious injury or death. In 1952 John Hetrick received the patent for the “safety cushion assembly for automotive vehicles.” He was the father of the modern airbag.

Only they didn’t work. No, at the time no one understood how fast an airbag would have to be triggered during an accident in order to cushion or save the vehicle’s occupants. Of course, once Hetrick’s device was patented, the auto industry started working on that math; the final calculation demanded a triggering device that could inflate an airbag in just 40 milliseconds from the moment of impact. That device didn’t exist.

Finally, in 1966 the U.S. Army informed Detroit that it had perfected a triggering device that fast and sensitive for a new weapons system. As with all non-classified government patents, industry is free to use them for critical systems, too. Within three years Ford was wanting to offer airbags, but its testing showed that this device could potentially kill or maim small women and children.

GM would bring out airbags in 1974, but there were no takers. Mercedes delivered airbags in 1984, again to a big yawn from the public. Then in 1988, with no new models to bring to market, Lee Iacocca at Chrysler made airbags the center of their ad campaign that year. Suddenly there was some public demand for these devices. Yet by the early 1990s, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was becoming alarmed at the number of cases reported in which airbags had deployed killing drivers and passengers, and in extreme low-speed accidents. Some from bumping into barriers while parking. The safety device had become the instrument of death for many that Ford engineers had warned about 20 years earlier.

Fearing the worst from a public backlash, since it had been overselling the promise of airbags for over a decade, NHTSA stealthily did two things. It farmed out the research on how many were being injured or killed by airbags to the University of North Carolina. Then NHTSA quietly started allowing car owners to get the permission mechanics needed to remove the airbags from vehicles operated by individuals most likely to be injured or killed by the devices. By the late 1990s a new smarter airbag came out and the speed necessary to even trigger these devices was raised.

Then came the unsuspected Takata airbag fiasco, a threat undetected for over a decade. Instead of using compressed air, as Honda had once used in its system, or the rocket propellant that sent our Space Shuttles into orbit, which most manufacturers used, Takata started creating the explosion to inflate the airbag using the cheaper chemical, ammonium nitrate; tragically, that chemical could become unstable in many vehicles — particularly those in hot, humid regions. If that happened an unstable Takata device could act as a Claymore mine, sending shrapnel into the car’s interior.

Here’s the point of this story. An airbag system is a fairly simple proposition. Once the military created that triggering device in 1966, the rest was simply math and quality control. But for the record, the promise of airbags saving tens of thousands of lives in automobile accidents has not happened yet. It’s been 65 years since John Hetrick came up with the idea at his kitchen table one night, yet we continue to have unnecessary life-threatening problems with these very simple airbags on a regular basis.

More to Malfunction

So why do car companies continue to hype the idea of fully self-driving cars coming to market within a few years and promise that they will in time stop all automotive fatalities?

A few things come to mind here. Many individuals have started using Ring, a Wi-Fi-connected doorbell that allows you to talk to and see whomever is at your door. In the commercials it looks great. In reality, though, it often takes 5 seconds or more just for the app to open on many smartphones — and even longer to get the feed for the video or talkback. Keep in mind, that airbag trigger had to work within 40 milliseconds to function; and that was a 1966 standard.

This is a good time to mention that just over a week ago, many got up and went to check their emails, only to discover that the AT&T system was out across much of the nation. That event happened on the heels of our outage, caused by an alleged fire at an AT&T switch station in Richardson on October 15. In a world where interconnected, self-driving automobiles talk to each other, if the Internet goes down like that, those vehicles are likely to quit working, too.

What Would Your Car Do?

MIT Technology Review published results of the International Online Quiz asking individuals to use their sense of morality to determine in an unavoidable accident how a self-driving car should react. If there is only you in your car and it’s about to hit four individuals in the street, does your car make the decision to sacrifice you instead of them? If on one side of the road is a toddler and in the other lane an elderly grandmother crossing the road with a walker, which victim gets hit will be a decision your car’s software must make.

This Moral Machine quiz is very similar to something proposed in this column years ago, about a self-driving car rounding a curve, seeing 6-year-old little Suzie standing in the middle of your lane. To avoid hitting her, your options are:

A. Moving into the next lane, where a speeding truck is coming your way.

B. Going over the cliff on the other side with an uncertain outcome for you.

C. Running over Little Suzie.

If you were in charge of the car you would have to make that decision quickly. Some would be like a deer in headlights and freeze. Sorry, Suzie. But if the car is in charge of the decision, who knows?

One thing is certain. This International Moral Machine quiz showed the best of mankind, in wanting the car to always make the right decision to save the most individuals. (Well, except maybe in Saudi Arabia.) That’s the problem with surveys and polls: We answer them the way we wish we really were. But I simply can’t imagine an individual going into a dealership one day and asking how these new self-driving cars were programmed to decide who wins in an accident. Because if the answer is, “Maybe not you,” it’s hard to believe someone would buy that vehicle.

Keep in mind that for decades, many individuals who purchased large SUVs believed, not always correctly, that in the event of a major accident that vehicle gave them the survival advantage. Can you imagine a soccer mom driving a vehicle that might not put her or her children first?

None of this matters, anyhow. In 65 years, we have yet to completely perfect airbags, with the weakest link of the past 20 years being car companies’ cutting so many corners on parts procurement that they bought an inferior airbag that in many cases could act not as a safety device, but as an explosive. With metal shrapnel. If we can’t even figure out something as simple as that, does anyone believe we’re going to have vehicles that have to calculate millions, if not billions of calculations in the split second before a potential accident? Remember, the Ring app can take 5 – 7 seconds just to let you know who’s at the front door.

An executive with Mercedes talking about self-driving cars said that his company was going to code a Benz to save its owner and family first. A spokesperson with Daimler immediately said he had been misquoted, and that statement was not true. Knowing how the world really works, imagine how many Mercedes they would sell if their ad campaign for a future self-driving car were nothing more than, “You Live No Matter What, in a Benz.”

Or better yet, a Mercedes that promises you will survive, only to find out it came equipped with remanufactured Takata airbags.

Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: edwallace570@gmail.com