When Cars Crash Like Computers

When we make pieces of our infrastructure "smart" with computers, we also give them the other characteristics of computers, like bugs, crashes, hackability, and downtime
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Yesterday, Daimler's Car2Go, which offers on-demand, one-way rentals to its users, crashed.

Not physically, but in the code that powers the ridesharing service and controls the cars. Would-be drivers in Washington, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Portland, and other cities could not couldn't access the fleet of vehicles, leaving the service's customer-service crews scrambling on social media to explain what was going on. Starting at 2pm, the service's city-level Twitter accounts started warning people that they were experiencing, "a partial interruption and are quickly working to resolve the issue." For about 12 hours, the service appears to have been completely down down.

For those who remember Twitter's fail-whale, it was a familiar scene. But the difference between not being able to send tweets and not being able to drive home from work or pick up your kids is huge.

As with the hackable toilet we reported on last week, when we make pieces of our infrastructure "smart" with computers, we also give them the other characteristics of computers, like bugs, crashes, hackability, and downtime. These tradeoffs might be worth it -- after all, trains and cars break down for all sorts of reasons already -- but the ways that things don't work will be novel.

In this case, Car2Go's Vancouver branch responded to a tweet asking if they'd gotten hacked by saying, "We are still identifying root causes but are taking this very seriously."

Whether it was a bug or an attack, this is also part of the future of mobility, along with the gee-whizness of picking up a car off the street with your phone. 

Via Glenn Fleishman

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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