The Fragility Of Complex Technology

This is amazing.

[Update a while later]

Note that this seemed to be an accident of inadvertent file naming, but FM subcarriers carry all sorts of info (like real-time traffic, weather, or alerts). Imagine the kinds of malicious things one could do with this, because the automakers haven’t bullet proofed their code. Particularly with self-driving cars and kill switches. There should be a firewall between a car’s radio and the rest of the avionics (as I think they do for aircraft entertainment systems).

22 thoughts on “The Fragility Of Complex Technology”

    1. Is this tangentially related to the parody movie Mars Attacks, where cowboy yodeling music of Slim Whitman causes the aliens’ heads to explode?

    2. Only Subaru-owning Lesbians living in western Massachussetts. Th rest of us bought them because they’re cheaper than the equivalent Toyota, as well as better equipped. Where else would you get a subcompact station wagon with all wheel drive and a manual transmission? (As far as I know, the Impreza is the only one.) I toyed with getting a Nissan Versa, but the 5-door was only $2K cheaper than the Impreza, with only front wheel drive.

    3. Subaru infotainment systems suck so much. There is a lot of potential to make something useful but its like none of their computer nerds drive their own cars.

  1. The problem wasn’t the radios, it’s that the driver tuned to an NPR station. The radio behaved just as many people do when they listen to NPR, entering an unrecoverable brick mode.

    1. I think George is right. The government should shut down all NPR stations just to be safe. After all, if it saves just one Mazda infotainment system it will be worth it. For the greater good and all that…

  2. The core problem here isn’t that the automaker failing to proof their code, it’s the inherent complexity of a fundamentally idiotic system.
    It’s inherently dangerous, because this “infotainment” crap is most often integrated with vehicle control systems (AC, etc) and requires a touch screen to navigate. A touch screen, unlike old style vehicle controls (knobs, buttons, etc) requires taking one’s eyes off the road. If I suddenly need to turn on the defroster, I sure as heck don’t want to have to navigate a touch screen.

    Why, exactly, is a radio station transmitting files to cars? So people can have graphics content to look at while they are supposed to be driving? And why combine the radio (music) with absolutely anything that requires executing code?

    Anytime you double the complexity of something, you don’t double the potential failure modes, you square it. As Elon Musk summed it up; the best part is no part.

    And BTW, Rand, they do indeed put a firewall between the infotainment systems and the flight control computers on airliners. (Boeing has its own custom firewall, no doubt designed and tested every bit as well as the 737 and Starliner software). I consider it nothing short of madness to have these systems (infotainment and flight control) running on the same computers – and that’s without the insane danger of having flight control systems linked the the internet at all, and worse yet, done for no sane reason whatsoever.

    1. “…they do indeed put a firewall between the infotainment systems and the flight control computers on airliners. (Boeing has its own custom firewall, no doubt designed and tested every bit as well as the 737 and Starliner software).”

      I’m well aware of that. It’s why I wrote what I wrote.

  3. I with you until the self driving car bit. The radio can be a critical element to self-driving cars in terms of navigation and traffic updates. Some of that information comes via the radio in much the same way as these graphics. If your point is, self-driving cars are generally problem, then yeah. But isolating the receiver will be difficult if not impossible unless adding in multiple systems.

    1. Having vehicles affected by information broadcast via a radio signal could provide many hours of amusement to precocious hackers with RF equipment and a good view of a highway.

  4. A smartphone has millions of lines of code. I’m surprised this kind of thing doesn’t happen more often. I’d say the system isn’t fragile.

  5. I really, really hope the airliner infotainment system runs on separate hardware from the FCS. Sadly I think the automobile systems approach of touch screens has made it into aircraft. That F-35C crash the other day looked to me to be similar to the Korean 777 at SFO a few years ago. Crew thought they were in autothrottle, didn’t notice airspeed decay, pulled nose up to stay on glideslope, bad idea as get on back of drag curve, fall below glideslope for a ramp or seawall strike.
    I’d like clearly labeled switches where you can directly see the mode selected.

  6. “Even with my infotainment screen off, the camera lights up when I shift into reverse.”
    You think anything with soft switches is truly OFF? How naive 🙂

    1. Funnily, my backup camera and lights are activated with a “sort of mechanical” switch, a spring pushbutton depressed by the manual transmission’s gearshift (it makes a nice crunch when activated). Really, only toggle switches are close to foolproof, malfy circuit breakers notwithstanding. If you operated hydraulics by manually turning the valves, that’d count too, but most of those are pushed by solenoids. (Testing nuclear submarine hydraulics with the control boards off was fun…)

  7. Once, way back in the Vela tech days, we used one computer to run the engine sequencer and the data acquisition system, and that caused hesitations in the controls and dropouts in the data. Rotary Rocket had similar problems, and at XCOR I decreed that controls and DAQ would have zero connections. We used programmable logic controllers designed for rugged industrial applications and had only one partial failure due to forst getting inside a PLC. melting, and causing it to shut down. An enclosure fixed that.

    Computers are cheap, just add more of them, with firewalls between.

  8. I wrote code for FM subcarrier systems years ago. The concept for putting it in cars came later. If the car manufacturers continue to rely on old chip sets and unified control systems there will be problems. Anything regarding environmental or driving should be nowhere near the infotainment system. Build a dedicated solution for that. Screens are cheap. Buttons are cheaper.

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