Friday, October 23, 2015

I paid for this back seat driver, so I want my money’s worth

Have you ever had some electronic equipment get bogged down over time? It happened to our Garmin, which after some years of use started to get slower and slower at giving directions. It started to tell us to turn after we had passed turns, instead of before the turn.

It’s mildly annoying when it happens to a Garmin, which you can replace. It’s more worrisome when it happens to your Subaru’s Eyesight system, which is a suite of safety software built into the car. One of the features is a lane departure warning, which beeps when it notices you cross a lane marker without having your turn signal on. Over the course of 10,000 miles, the Eyesight system gradually stopped noticing so often that we were crossing lane markers, and it wasn’t because we had suddenly become more precise drivers.

Around that time, Subaru posted a recall for the Eyesight system for an unrelated bug, and our Eyesight system got reinitialized. Hey, look, the lane departure warnings are back! This seems like good confirmation that the system had stopped working correctly over time.

But Subaru doesn’t seem to have any standardized testing approach for the lane departure system, so they have no way to verify with any precision what was happening. The dealer’s mechanic took it out for a test drive, and he got it to beep, so it must be fine. That’s not exactly comforting when you think about how complex the code must be for this system. And other parts of the suite of safety software are actually intended to change the speed of the car autonomously to avoid accidents, so it would be nice to both trust the software and verify that it’s working.

Someone needs to take a Subaru with Eyesight at 0 miles driven and compare its responsiveness to a Subaru with Eyesight at 20,000 miles driven since the last software reinstall or reinitialization. Try crossing a variety of stripes at different levels of wear or fade with both cars, and see whether both cars alert equally. We don’t expect the system to be perfect, but we do expect it to keep working the way it worked when it was new. And I hope that Subaru would not just expect the same, but would test that the system met their and our expectations. Self-driving cars will be a lot less fun if they only work correctly for a year or two.

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