NASA engineers referred to the most crucial moments in the Mars Curiosity mission last summer as the "seven minutes of terror." During that time, without the guidance or control of any humans back on earth, the rover had to enter the martian atmosphere, descend from an initial speed of 13,000 miles per hour, and land on target in one insanely expensive, intact piece.
"And the computer," as the engineer in this dramatic little NASA trailer explains, "has to do it all by itself."
Perhaps this sounds like a leap too far in transportation technology, but if engineers can build a car-sized robot capable of managing its own internal errors in a first foray to the martian landscape, surely some less sophisticated but equally reliable systems could be built into our more terrestrial vehicles?
"Imagine the complexity in software and from the hardware perspective that’s necessary in order to launch that successfully in seven minutes," says Aziz Makkiya, a design telematics engineer at Ford. "That’s one of the experiences that we're trying to mimic in a smaller scale in the automotive world."
Cars are about to get substantially more complex, more reliant on computers. Soon enough, they'll automatically be talking to each other, to the infrastructure around them, to distant emergency responders. And this isn't just in the faraway world of driverless cars. Cars that still have people behind the wheel will have "connected vehicle" technology in them that simply makes them safer, by for instance registering the presence of nearby speeding cars.
All of this technological promise, though, comes with greater risk. Parts breaks. Networks fail. Sometimes our phone calls get dropped or the power goes out. The real question about connected cars is actually the same one NASA asks about all those robots in space the agency invests millions of dollars in: How do we make sure this stuff never fails?