Outer Places

We’ve seen field tests, but we’re not at the point where self-driving or autonomous cars are a widespread phenomenon. But when that moment finally leaves the realm of science fiction and becomes a reality, it’ll be good to know what can and can’t stop a car from driving itself.

Besides hackers and glitches, a big threat to self-driving cars may actually be from the sun. According to Scott McIntosh, the director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, it could be very dangerous that self-driving cars are so dependent on GPS right now, because if anything were to scramble or disrupt those GPS satellites, it could prevent the car from navigating anywhere.

And nothing scrambles a satellite quite like a solar storm.

The sun, being an enormous star only eight light-minutes away from us, is always flaring up with solar activity and some of that activity can reach as far as Earth. Solar storms are rated on a scale of 1-5, with the lesser storms being harmless and difficult to notice unless you catch the aurora it may produce. But the larger storms, which can rank from 3 or higher, are capable of disrupting power grids and satellites (and tons of other things).

If a large enough storm were to occur over an unsuspecting world full of GPS-reliant driverless cars, the cars should be programmed to pull over since they can no longer connect with the GPS satellites and figure out where they’re going. But streets and highways full of cars suddenly grinding to a halt on the side of the road is the best case scenario – the worst involves accidents, and that’s bad for both the industry and especially the people riding in those cars.

According to Danny Shapiro, a senior director at Nvidia, who said the following to Bloomberg:

Opening quote

“With very detailed measurements like lane changes and bike lanes, you don’t have time to take all this data and send it up to the cloud and back. You go to the cloud when you’re asking, ‘Hey, what’s the fastest route to Starbucks?'”

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Despite reports of powerful solar and geomagnetic storms, we’re not in danger of any severe storms anytime soon. There were a few recent ones that disrupted radio communications on Earth, but there’s little reason to be afraid of a massive solar storm destroying our power grids.

Until it happens, that’ll be firmly in the realm of science fiction. Although we say that about a lot of things, don’t we?