Self-Driving Software: Why We Need E Pluribus Unum

Today, numerous large and small companies around the world are working diligently on perfecting their company’s self-driving software. All the large traditional automobile companies are included as well as large technology firms such as Google, Intel and Microsoft, and even Uber. These companies are working in true twentieth-century capitalist fashion: they’re doing it all independently and secretly. This approach leads to sub-optimal technology and foreseeable tragedies.

Self-Driving Vehicles Use Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Programming a self-driving vehicle (SDV) by traditional software-development methods is so fraught with complexity that no one, to my knowledge, is attempting. So scrap that idea. Instead, developers have flocked to artificial intelligence, a red-hot technology idea built on rather old ideas about neural networks.

There’s a lot to AI technology beyond the scope of this blog. A quick Internet search will get you started on a deep dive. For today, let’s sketch a common approach to AI application development:

  • First, an AI rules-based model is fed real-world scenarios, rules, and practical knowledge. For example, “turning left into oncoming traffic (in the USA but not the UK) is illegal and hazardous and will likely result in a crash. Don’t do that.” This first phase is the AI Learning Phase.
  • Second, the neural network created in the learning phase is executed in a vehicle, often on a specialized chip, graphics processing unit (GPU) or multi-processor. This is the Execution Phase.
  • Third, the execution unit records real-world observations while driving, eventually feeding them back into the learning model.

The Problem of Many

Here’s the rub. Every SDV developer is on its own, creating a proprietary AI model with its own set of learning criteria. Each AI model is only as good as the data fed into its learning engine.

No single company is likely to encounter or imagine all of the third standard-deviation, Black Swan events that can and will lead to vehicle tragedies and loss of life. Why should Tesla and the state of Florida be the only beneficiaries of the lessons from a particular fatal crash? The industry should learn from the experience too. That’s how society progresses.

Cue the class-action trial lawyers.

E Pluribus Unum

E Pluribus Unum is Latin for “out of many, one”. (Yes, it’s the motto of the United States). My proposal is simple:

  • The federal government should insist that all self-driving vehicles use an AI execution unit that is trained in its learning phase with an open-source database of events, scenarios, and real-world feedback. Out of many AI training models, one model.
  • The Feds preempt state regulation of core AI development and operation
  • Vehicles that use the federalized learning database for training receive limited class-action immunity, just like we now do with immunization drugs.
  • The Feds charge fees to the auto industry that cover the costs of the program.


From a social standpoint, there’s no good reason for wild-west capitalism over proprietary AI learning engines that lead to avoidable crashes and accidents. With one, common AI learning database, all SDVs will get smarter, faster because they are benefiting from the collective experience of the entire industry. By allowing and encouraging innovation in AI execution engines, the industry will focus on areas that impact better-faster-cheaper-smaller products and not in avoiding human-risk situations. Performance benchmarks are a well-understood concept.

Philosophically, I don’t turn first to government regulation. But air traffic control, railroads, and numerous aspects of medical areas are regulated without controversy. Vehicle AI is ripe for regulation before production vehicles are produced by the millions over the next decade.

I am writing this blog because I don’t see the subject being discussed. It ought to be.

Comments and feedback are welcome. See my feed on Twitter @peterskastner.

“My ISP is a Solar-Powered Drone.”

Google, the ad-driven search giant, and Facebook, the social connections giant, are fighting over airplane drone technology companies. What’s that all about?

Solar-powered drones would, when they’re ready for mass-market in the next five years, be able to fly for weeks or months. They can take 2D and 3D photos resulting in better and more up-to-date maps. And they could serve as aerial Internet connections. It’s the latter that got my attention because it threatens the status quo in developed nations and opens new markets in developing nations.

Aerial Internet Drones (AIDs) suggest a breakout technology that solves — or at least remediates — the “wireless everywhere” mantra of the past decade. In developed countries such as the United States, intractable wireless problems include inadequate wireless bandwidth in high device areas (e.g., mid-town New York) necessitating more cell towers and greater slices of the electromagnetic spectrum. Moreover, “poor wireless coverage meets not-in-my-neighborhood” and inadequate capital make it politically and economically difficult to add enough cell towers to guarantee wireless broadband such as LTE to build a superior wireless broadband network in suburban and rural areas.

In underdeveloped geographies, which represent attractive new markets for the global technology and wireless companies, inexpensive and inadequate mobile broadband infrastructure creates a chicken-and-the-egg problem.

So, the vision to solve both developing and developed wireless broadband demand is to put up a global network of drones that serve as radio relays for wireless Internet connections. AIDs would be a new form of Internet router, loitering around a more-or-less fixed point in the sky.

At the right altitude, an AID has better line-of-sight than a cell tower located over the hill. The AID theoretically offers greater geographic coverage and often better signal quality than today’s cell tower networks. At a cost of less than $10 million per equipped AID, my envelope calculations suggest AID network costs compare favorably with cell towers for comparable geographic coverage.

In developing areas such as Africa, an AID network is a solution to creating metro- and rural-area Internet wireless infrastructure rapidly and without the difficulties of building land-line-connected cell towers.

Cellphone networks connect cell towers with land line connections to each other and to an Internet wired backhaul. An AID network needs to connect wirelessly to a) client cellphones and the Internet of Things and b) to a radio ground-station connected to an Internet wired backhaul. The radio ground-station is the crux of the difficulties I foresee.

The ground-station requires radio spectrum to communicate up to and down from the AID network. It represents a new demand on the over-burdened and highly political use of the electromagnetic spectrum. Where does the spectrum come from, whose ox is gored, and how are the skids greased?  Think lobbying.

Moreover, the incumbent cable and wireless ISPs (i.e., Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, Dish, et al) are not likely to give up their near monopolies on Internet access by devices, homes, and businesses without a knockdown, drag-out political fight followed by years of litigation.

Add citizen privacy related to drone picture taking to this highly volatile Internet-industrial-complex wireless food fight and you can expect great spectator sport. Although in developing countries, the issue will be described as “drone spying by the NSA”.

Like many, I would greatly appreciate and even pay more for better wireless coverage and higher wireless device bandwidth. First, Google and Facebook have to solve the real technology problems of getting the AIDs into the sky. Second, they have to muscle a (much needed) rethink of wireless spectrum use and the roles of future ISPs through the political sausage factory, and nail down the new spectrum they need. Combined, this is a heavy lift.

So, with a sigh of regret, I suspect it will be quite a while before I can say “My ISP is a Solar-Powered Drone.”

Follow me on Twitter @PeterSKastner.

solar drone

Titan Aerospace/Associated Press