Safety in the Automotive Industry Is Quickly Becoming a Software Issue

By Felicia Campbell

“I took a pretty standard route in university and then in my early work as a software engineer,” said Dr. Milan Bjelica, an auto industry veteran who now teaches functional safety at UC San Diego Extension. “Then, about seven or eight years ago, I began working in automotive, and it was a total revelation.”

Struck by the fact that automotive innovations now center more on software than mechanics, Dr. Bjelica was fascinated by the complex programs vehicles operate on. He was also deeply concerned by the potential for new kinds of safety failures. “If something works algorithmically, it doesn’t mean it will run the same way on the road. Even more importantly, it will not necessarily yield safe results.”

In his view, this was part of the problem with the development of autonomous vehicles or so-called self-driving vehicles. “It worked in software models that gave little attention to safety. It could be successful nine out of ten times, and by now, we are probably down to an error one out of 10,000 times, but for reliable safety, we need to get that number closer to one in a million.”

If that sounds impossible, that’s because, at this point, it is. “Fully autonomous functionality is great in controlled environments, like factories or airports, but when it comes to cars, the expectations were inflated. Just because a car can drive itself for a long time on the highway, or stop before hitting an obstacle, or stay in its lane, doesn’t make it autonomous in the sense that most people imagined. At this point, a licensed driver needs to be in the car, ready to take over driving operations, and if you have that fallback, then safety is possible,” he explained. “To help the public understand that, it would be better to change the marketing language from ‘autonomous vehicles’ to something like ‘advanced driver assistance’.”

In a time of unprecedented innovation and change in the automotive industry, there is a huge need for software-savvy, functional safety experts, but the specialized training is simply not available. Many auto giants tried to solve the knowledge gap in-house but soon realized how hard it was to craft that kind of specialized training. As an industry insider, Dr. Bjelica saw this struggle and felt compelled to help bridge the knowledge gap. 

“When you want to learn about auto and safety, the only options currently are workshops that are short and not very systematic. The program my colleagues and I developed was in direct response to industry need,” he explained of the new Functional Safety Fundamentals for Automotive program at UCSD Extension. “Software engineers are flooding into the industry, but software thinks from application outward, and for automotive, we need to think of the system engineering first before even talking about software. It has to be a holistic view.”

Dr. Bjelica feels that the best way to address complex safety issues is through a multi-solution approach. “You can detect a pedestrian in two different ways, by camera and proximity, and when using both, if you get the same outcome, you might be okay safety-wise. If not, then we know there is something wrong with your system, and at that point, the vehicle should go into a safety state, which might be something like a vehicle shutdown or an alert to the driver,” he explained. “The key is diversification of the system so that if one fails, there are others to take over.”

Traditionally, functional safety meant looking at the wearing out of physical parts, but now, it is vital to also look at how to account for potential for software errors. “We provide a fresh approach,” said Dr. Bjelica. “We have huge experience in auto software development, so this program offers both the traditional overview of safety, along with this unique connection to software engineering. Both safety pros and software engineers who want to work in automotive will benefit. They can pick and choose which courses best serve them.”

The Functional Safety Fundamentals For Automotive certificate covers industry-specific safety concepts, fault tolerance principles, programming for safety, and functional safety standards for automotive (ISO 26262), and current, hands-on case studies designed to help participants address the emerging issues in automotive safety that are developing in tandem with new technologies. The program uses flipped classroom methods of instruction to allow students as much interactive experience as possible. 

“This is not dry theoretical lectures or learning on paper,” said Dr. Bjelica. “We find interesting examples and are always crafting new exercises for the labs. We give students access to all the materials, short, fun video lectures and handouts that they can watch when they have time, over breakfast or after the kids go to bed, to prepare for the interactive live sessions. We start the live sessions with a short recap, then present the problem, which is always a good representation of a real-world example. Then they work with a group to solve the problem through one of many paths. Each group presents their solutions, and we discuss.” 

With a methodology that mirrors the type of problem-solving required in the real world, software-driven, functional safety programs are the best way to prepare future experts who will change the way we get safety from one place to another.

Did you find this article helpful or interesting? Let us know in the comments! We invite you to learn more about the Functional Safety Fundamentals for Automotive program at UCSD Extension and how it can help you launch your career in the automotive industry.


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