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Autonomous Vehicles: Can Car Sensors Identify Maintenance Needs?

Autonomous Vehicles: Can Car Sensors Identify Maintenance Needs?

For responsible car owners, maintenance is a top priority. They change their oil every 3,000 miles and follow the 30-60-90 maintenance rule: in other words, there are specific maintenance tasks that should occur around the 30k, 60k, and 90k mile marks. The air and fuel filters should be changed before or around 30,000 miles, change the battery, coolant, and brake pads around 60,000 miles, and replace hoses, spark plugs, and timing belts around 90,000 miles. It takes a lot of work to keep a car running smoothly.

With growing interest in autonomous vehicles, though, the public and media have both raised a number of concerns about safety and the technology underpinning such technology. Are current sensors really up to the task of navigating the road independently? What about hacking risks? Can vehicle sensors reliably detect problems that drivers would use a combination of instinct, experience, and sensory input to identify? To many, it sounds like a risky proposition.

Senses Versus Sensors

Drivers use a combination of their senses and experience behind the wheel to respond rapidly to changing road conditions. For example, to determine when a car’s suspension needs repairs, drivers feel for drift, especially when turning, nose dips, and uneven tire treads. But what signs does an autonomous vehicle rely on to detect suspension issues?

While there are sensors that can drift, many of the other metrics are beyond digital measure. For example, any sensor that can measure nose dips when stopping would likely be triggered by a variety of other road conditions, like potholes, speed bumps, and assorted level changes. And the car can’t look at its own treads. Engineers need to develop a broader set of sensors trained on subtle mechanical issues that work in communication with wireless maintenance systems if they’re going to be safe for users.

Tech Update Troubles

Another issue with the use of sensor technology in autonomous vehicles is their reliance on complex technology to function safely – and current mechanics aren’t ready for this new tech. As one seasoned mechanic notes, one day auto garages will need to employ computer programmers. Right now, many don’t even repair hybrid engines.

The educational and technical improvements necessary for mechanics in the age of autonomous vehicles are about business, but fundamentally they’re about safety. Just ask one Canadian man who got his Acura MDX’s windshield repaired at an independent shop. The shop failed to recalibrate the car’s camera properly and when the driver hit the road using the advanced driver assist system, the car kept pulling him into oncoming traffic.

Tuning In To Maintenance

Industry experts remain uncertain and aloof regarding how close the autonomous vehicle revolution is, but if drivers want to ensure their safety, they may need to tune in to their cars using new tools. For example, they might use a prospective app that could listen to the car and identify maintenance needs, like a dirty filter. The more data the app can accrue about vehicle sounds and performance problems, the better it can serve drivers. And because the app would be separate from the car itself, it would reduce the risks associated with a hacked sensor.

Meanwhile, mechanics and other technicians are taking proactive steps to prepare for the changing vehicle market. They’re learning about the importance of diversifying their technician base to handle sensor repairs, computer issues, and traditional maintenance. These industry experts are also throwing their support behind changes to vocational training programs. They want to encourage these programs to produce new mechanics that understand electrification and network technology. They need to be electricians and programmers, not just mechanics in the traditional sense.

Autonomous vehicles most likely are our future, but we’ll need better sensors, better mechanic training, and a new way to think about driving if we want to use them intelligently. Just because a car can drive itself, doesn’t mean we should fall asleep or put one on the road without a capable driver. We need checks and balances regardless of how good vehicle technology becomes.

About Jessica McMohen

Jessica is an independent journalist, freelance blogger, and technology junkie with a passion for music, arts, and the outdoors.