Recent vehicle models are quite the technological marvel, loaded with so much technology, they can be considered like computers in their own right. But the technology that is currently widely accessible is nothing compared to the technological power of autonomous vehicles, the oft-promised innovation whose mass deployment is forever on the near horizon. Autonomous vehicles are so technologically innovative that some have taken to calling them supercomputers on wheels. One company that makes chips for autonomous vehicles have estimated that a single AV has the computing power of 200 laptops.
In a new article for Wired, Khari Johnson lays out the argument being made for making the best use of all that technology. There are those who believe that, as autonomous vehicles become more prolific, their computing power can be put to all sorts of uses, even for things that lay well beyond the scope of driving, like mining bitcoin or decoding viruses.
Autonomous vehicles are supercomputers by necessity. It takes a lot of power to run a vehicle that is able to drive, park, and safely navigate traffic without any human intervention. Autonomous vehicles are replete with multiple cameras, sensors and a central software system that is able to process huge amounts of data. All of that technology works together to navigate around other vehicles, pedestrians, and cyclists, while also identifying and reacting to potential hazards. The result is a highly sophisticated piece of technology.
And yet, for most of us, our vehicles spend the bulk of their time parked in garages or in parking spaces waiting to be of use. That’s one thing when your vehicle still has a CD player, and another thing when the vehicle sitting unused is the most sophisticated technological tool you’re likely to encounter that day. This is precisely why some are arguing that we expand our understanding of the potential uses for autonomous vehicles.
Some have already made moves in that direction, like the CEO of Daymak, a Canadian scooter company that is developing its first autonomous vehicle. Their first model, set to release in 2023, will have the ability to mine cryptocurrency while the vehicle is parked, made as easy as pressing a button.
Others have even bigger, hypothetical ambitions:
“Keith Strier, Nvidia’s VP of worldwide AI initiatives, envisions a world in which government fleets of autonomous vehicles that sit idle at night are harnessed to address the computational needs of nations that don’t own supercomputers… Strier says turning millions of cars into a supercomputer would be more resilient and less vulnerable to attack than one big supercomputer…”
Strier is by no means alone in envisioning big things for autonomous vehicles. Putting all that power to use when autonomous vehicles are not in use is an idea that is being seriously considered by experts across different fields. However, not everyone agrees that such a future is possible, or even desirable.
“Shaoshan Liu is founder of Perceptin, a company focused on autonomous driving and computer vision with offices in the US and China. He calls offloading compute from autonomous vehicles for cryptomining a wild and impractical idea that raises questions about energy consumption and network bandwidth costs, among other things. To make the idea work, cars may have to stay on and running. Treating compute in your car like a personal computer could leave it vulnerable to hardware failures or cybersecurity attacks…”
An autonomous vehicles’ vulnerability to security threats is a concern that has been echoed by the European Union, who have categorized AVs as ‘highly vulnerable.’ And leaving cars running at all hours in order to make use of their computing power is problematic too, given the current climate crisis.
Another possibility is reconsidering the way computing power is imputed to autonomous vehicles altogether. Liu, who disparaged the use of AV technology to mine bitcoin, sees the potential for autonomous vehicles to go in a different direction:
“Liu was lead author of a 2019 research paper that argued against putting all the computing power necessary for an autonomous vehicle inside the vehicle. Instead, he advocates offloading some compute to roadside stations, which he says can lower costs, make vehicles more reliable, and consume less energy. Offloading and sharing data between vehicles… can also open the door to cooperative decision making between cars.”
This idea is already being tested in China, and if successful could be more widely implemented, in China and across the world.
While the idea of being able to mine bitcoin using your parked vehicle, or provide computing power for a small nation, sounds great, it’s unlikely to come to fruition on a large scale without further innovation that would neutralize problems of energy consumption and cybersecurity.
For more, check out the original article in Wired by Khari Johnson.