How To Dumb Down Smart Electronics

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In our generation of microcontroller-enhanced everything, it has been frustrating at best to see how often the capability of smart hardware has been foiled by the design of poorly purposed software.  We have image sensors at intersections, automobiles with computers many times faster than the operators’ reflexes, computer answering systems that can even recognize speech, smartphones with built-in everything, just to name a few.  However, in my experience, too much of this capability is wasted or countermanded by software/firmware having malformed purposes. We as engineers and programmers need to carefully consider the ramifications of what we are doing as we design our computer “enhanced” systems. A few examples:

1. As a child, I spent a few years in Bryan, Texas, which had installed a timed light system on its main through-town road in 1965. This system allowed drivers who drove about 2 mph below the posted speed limit to travel completely through the town on that road without ever being stopped at a (second) stop light.  As an adult in Peoria, Ill., I saw the city “upgrade” to new image sensor stoplights. These were programmed to prefer the larger of the two roads at the intersection (default green was to main road), and to not change unless a car was sensed waiting on the smaller road. The program had weighting so that the longer the main road green light had been active, the quicker the side road sensor would switch the light. A couple of minor points were (A) the lack of coordination among lights on main roads, so that one could literally be stopped at every light on the major street depending on the sensor activations, and (B) the inability of the sensors to detect motorcycles. 
One of the funniest exchanges on the local public radio-produced Peoria Town Council meeting was between a councilman who had ridden his motorcycle to Chicago for a concert, returned to Peoria late at night, and been held at a light downtown for over 30 minutes until he gave up and turned right just to get to where he could get across the road by turning left.  The Chief of Police explained that he could have just walked the motorcycle across the intersection legally, to which the councilman exclaimed how ridiculous walking a Harley-Davidson across an intersection was for someone his size and age. It seems odd to me that modern sensor lights do not “perturbate” an intelligent and coordinated schedule in response to traffic abnormalities, rather than simply awaiting sensed vehicular presence.  This would fix many issues with motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians, while improving the stop-and-go traffic that “smart” sensors have returned our streets to.

2. Automobile computer software designers have gone awry in numerous areas. Take, for example, my hybrid (brand hidden to protect the guilty, but a very common vehicle) that treated me to yet a new level of excitement about a month ago. I was on an entrance ramp to a U.S. highway near Madison, Wis., at night, where there was black ice. The tires started to skid, the ABS kicked in to try to control traction, a loud alarm sounded, and the dash had a bright flashing indicator. The ABS system, in pretty typical fashion, did much worse than a driver trained in ice and snow, but better than a southern fair-weather driver (sorry to readers who might take offense at this). However, the “features” that included un-needed noise and flashing lights were distractions that were totally inappropriate when the driver’s undivided attention was needed pointing the vehicle. The same vehicle sounds a loud beeping sound whenever placed in reverse, doing well at blocking the driver’s ability to hear impacts or playing children during a vehicle backing evolution. Back when I was learning to drive, the instructor always required that the driver-side window be lowered and both visual and audible clues checked prior to and during a backing evolution. Removing a non-deaf-driver’s sense of hearing by sounding an alarm tone loudly (maybe even quietly) does not enhance safety during backing.

3. We all hate the answering machine that asks a hundred questions (I only exaggerate slightly), then puts us on hold when we called to report that the computer site for that company had just locked up with our attempt to purchase $150 in tickets for a concert.  Many of us yearn for the days when a human actually answered a phone, but that is expensive (my workplace still has a paid receptionist to answer phones). Instead of that expense, or angering customers, a better approach might be to take incoming calls into a voicemail, tag the voicemail to the appropriate person to handle, get the caller’s phone number and email address, provide that person with a case number, then promise (and deliver) a return call to address the issue or report correction of the problem.  If the return call has not been made at the promised interval, the case number would quickly connect to a human who could at least inform the caller of the status and expected time of resolution of the issue. Such a system could radically streamline what is now standard in the industry and uniformly frustrates and angers customers, where a call is first filtered by a digital system often to about three layers of Q&A, then to a marginally trained and paid phone-answering crew, then eventually to a technical or administrative representative capable of taking real action or actually providing answers. The key here would be setting in place a scheme where the call back is timely and can address or fix the problem reported. Few things are as exasperating as an hour-plus hold waiting for help when a cell-phone battery dies.

4. One of the things we can actually laud is the responsiveness of the cell-phone code developers. Although arguably slow in responding, there has been movement in the right direction in numerous areas including actually putting the GPS required by law to use for the user also, implementing schemes for wireless headphones including noise-canceling features, providing zoned-emergency-calling, and numerous other advances. With all of this forward motion, some very critical issues remain. One good example is an open and interactive means of silencing or at least quieting noisy ringing sounds. Some locations actually have jamming installed to prevent cell phones from connecting to prevent ringing noise. I am not aware of efforts (if they are ongoing) to provide features that let a smartphone be self-aware enough to go to “stealth-mode” in certain locations or at certain times. One simple solution would be an app that would schedule changes in the ring tone manner and volume coinciding with the user’s scheduled activities. A similar solution would be a standardized interface, that could be opted-out, where when within some physical zone the ring mode would become vibrate-only, and perhaps the phone could even be turned off (for meeting rooms, movie theaters, and such).

We must remember that a microcontroller or larger computer is not always the best solution to a low-tech problem. I still grin when I remember people trying to sell Internet-enabled toasters. I have yet to see a car with ABS that can compete with a well-trained driver in extreme conditions (especially black ice or heavy, patchy ice conditions). Let us, as engineers and designers, carefully evaluate what we should be doing with products and features to truly add value.  We need to consciously avoid creating more traffic jams with poorly executed or planned “feature-rich” products.

Discuss this Blog Entry 9

on Jan 26, 2015

I have been corrected by one reader, Barry Roland, that there has is an app for the Nokia Symbian environment called "Situations" that could actually take care of silencing or shutting down a phone in a scheduled or situational configuration. He provided a link
http://www.pastillilabs.com/home
that seems to point to a few such applications for various platforms including Android, Nokia X, Sailfish, Symbian, and Meego. Wow! This is the type of thing that I like to be wrong about occasionally!

on Jan 27, 2015

In contrast to your ABS experience, my experience with the Stability Control System in my 2005 Chrysler was laudable. One winter night I was driving around a curve on a freeway in Michigan when I encountered a stretch of black ice; the SCS kept the car in lane, and merely illuminated a small light in the dash to inform me of its activation.

on Feb 5, 2015

It is good to hear not all of the manufacturers got it wrong. My most dangerous near-miss with ABS was in the '90s on US 2 in northern Wisconsin, when a mini-van with ABS prevented braking on patchy ice. After giving the mini-van more than three times the distance given my hatchback sub-compact without ABS on the prior day's trip, I barely stopped with wheels over the edge of the steep slope opposite the "T"ing road ("Officer was there really a stop sign there?"), because the ABS on patchy ice would not let the tires that were alternately on clear spots brake.

on Jan 27, 2015

I especially enjoyed your comments about traffic light timing. I've been ranting about them for over thirty years. In the Denver area there are some main roads that have lights on every block and if you drive at the wrong time you can catch a dozen red lights in a row. The inconvenience is frustrating but a larger issue is the waste of gasoline in having to overcome the inertia of a stopped vehicle every block is more than significant. Think of the gasoline saved with properly timed lights. It also habituates drivers to race to the next light in order to beat the red rather than drive 2 mph under the speed limit. I'm a little shocked that they got it right in Texas in '65. I would think we all could get it right in 2015.

on Jan 28, 2015

"I am not aware of efforts (if they are ongoing) to provide features that let a smartphone be self-aware enough to go to “stealth-mode” in certain locations or at certain times"
Motorola has what they call Smart Actions that let you affect most of the phone's settings depending on conditions such as battery status, location, time or other.
I use it to turn off WiFi when I get to work because otherwise the phone will not get my personal email when connected through the company's network. It works perfectly. It could certainly be extended to more precise location if such location method was available. I cannot imagine a system that could identify being in a specific room (but not interfere with somebody working in an office next door) unless the building was designed with that in mind (and appropriate beacons located in the rooms to be protected with the corresponding hardware and software in the phone). Not something that will happen overnight.

on Mar 14, 2015

How someone can to this thing in this generation

on Mar 29, 2015

You are absolutely righht mr Sydney no one will do this stuff

on Mar 31, 2015

It is fairly trivial to program traffic lights to allow a vehicle to pass through a town with a maximum of one stop! BUT IN ONE DIRECTION ONLY unless there is a fortunate congruency with the regular distance between the controlled junctions, the desired speed limit and the minimum cycle time feasible for the junctions. As an aid to comprehend the difficulties, just try qualitative solutions for traffic in both directions, on very short distances between junctions. Then try irregularly long distances. Both can be insoluble.
In practice, at different times of the day different directions are given the priority and the wrong direction can often suffer ineffably insufferably long consecutive wait times.
It was during these wait times that I realized these impossibilities existed and I then ceased voodoo pinning the traffic engineers and technicians.

on May 11, 2015

Unfortunately user interfaces can often be almost incomprehensible. On line banking sites I use are in this category. The main functions are look at a balance, put money in, take money out, transfer money. Yet banks in particular want to populate their pages with virtually everything they offer and all on one page. It's like a kindergarten show and tell. UI development often suffers from obfuscation.

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