Who’s in control when we’re behind the wheel?


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WHEN I’m behind the wheel, I like to think I’m in charge. Unfortunately, our car recently rejected its normal subservience and showed us who’s boss.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/08/2021 (347 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

WHEN I’m behind the wheel, I like to think I’m in charge. Unfortunately, our car recently rejected its normal subservience and showed us who’s boss.

The vehicle disabled itself on the Trans-Canada Highway at about 11 p.m. on Aug. 17. Four of us in the car were returning from a visit to Saskatchewan when, about 120 kilometres west of Winnipeg, our highway cruising speed suddenly dropped to about 30 km/h, and the car began lurching. We pulled over to the shoulder, rested the car, and tried again, but the engine had almost no power.

For people who have never been stranded on a busy highway at night — a road-trip misadventure I wish on no one, not even anti-vaxxers and Rider fans — I can advise there are immediate and longer-term concerns.

First priority: get us and the car to safety. Kitson’s Towing of Portage la Prairie was hired to tow our vehicle to Winnipeg, but they wouldn’t take passengers. Our son’s wonderful partner, Ali Fulmyk, was available to drive out from Winnipeg and bring us home.

After those pressing needs were met, the deeper question loomed: why had the car balked and seized the initiative to disable itself? Our Nissan Altima is serviced regularly, including just before our Saskatchewan trip, and had been a commendably reliable car. Until it wasn’t.

The mystery was solved the next day by a mechanic who found the culprit: a sensor had malfunctioned and erroneously immobilized the car. In short, the car was mechanically sound, but the sensor mistakenly “thought” there was a problem and took it upon itself to disregard the driver’s instructions and shut down the home stretch of our trip.

The faulty piece is called a Mass Air Flow Sensor (MAF). When working properly, the sensor apparently calculates the amount of air entering the engine. The mechanic replaced the MAF at a parts-and-labour cost of $254.

The car again runs fine, but my confidence in it has slipped. I am now wary that another of the vehicle’s many sensors might overstep its role. Sensors are supposed to warn of possible problems, not wage mechanical mutiny and take control of the vehicle.

I recounted our highway woes to a group of friends and found some of them are also uneasy with the growing computerization of vehicles. Sensors in some vehicles have reached the point where they usurp the driver’s control. One pal described it as “surrendering our driving to computer overlords,” a sentiment that might seem like sci-fi hyperbole until you consider a list of electronic functions in modern vehicles.

Some vehicles parallel park themselves without the driver touching the steering wheel. Some automatically stay centered in their lane and, without instruction from the driver, apply brakes if sensors believe the vehicle is about to hit something. On the highway, they can detect speed signs, monitor lane changes and blind spots and automatically adjust cruise-control speed to stay an apt distance from other vehicles. There are also drowsiness alerts that, through cameras and algorithms, can sound a warning if a driver’s eyelids droop.

When these electronics work as intended, they increase road safety. But when sensors go wonky, people can die. For horrifying examples, just Google “lawsuits about malfunctioning vehicle sensors.” Many vehicles of many different types have suddenly braked without warning, or the accelerators stuck, or the steering systems failed, or airbags inflated without cause.

When vehicles are hijacked by defective sensors, the consequences have sometimes been fatal for people in the vehicle.

For those of us without a computer-engineering degree, it’s difficult to understand how modern cars work and, of more concern, why they sometimes work improperly. Even home mechanics — the driveway gearheads who used to enjoy fixing things under the hood — have given up trying to decipher the modern mass of wires and computers that can include 60 to 100 sensors in a single vehicle.

The trend in recent years has been toward self-driving vehicles. The speculation was that computerization was advancing so quickly, it wouldn’t be long before redundant humans could relax and read that day’s Free Press while the car did all the driving. Testing has since found, however, that vehicles that are fully autonomous are not fully safe.

I pondered all this as I was stranded on the highway by a rogue sensor. I pledged then and there that I won’t be first in line to buy a fully-automated car if they ever become available. When it comes to computers, I don’t trust their driving.


Carl DeGurse is a member of the Winnipeg Free Press editorial board.

Carl DeGurse

Carl DeGurse
Senior copy editor

Carl DeGurse’s role at the Free Press is a matter of opinion. A lot of opinions.

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