The Tech Industry Needs Functional Safety

on January 16, 2018
Reading Time: 3 minutes

The tech industry’s infatuation with the automobile industry has become rather obvious over the last few years. Nearly everyone in tech, it seems, is dying to get involved with automotive, either on a component, high-level partnership, or even on a finished vehicle basis.

The reason, of course, is rather simple—it’s the money. As big and strong as the tech industry may be (counting combined revenues of PCs, smartphones, tablets and wearables), the automobile industry is still several times larger by most counts, with worldwide revenues reaching into the trillions of dollars per year.

In addition to the dollars, many in the tech business believe they can bring new capabilities and perspectives into the auto business. Put another way, there’s some pretty flagrant egoism in the tech business with regard to automotive, and many in tech believe they can help drag the traditional, and (in their minds) rather archaic, auto industry into the modern era.

While there may be some nugget of truth to that argument, the reality is that the auto industry actually has a lot it can teach the tech business, specifically around safety and reliability. The concept of functional safety—famously standardized around the ISO 26262 standard—in particular, is something the tech industry should really spend some time thinking about.

The specific requirements for functional safety are varied, but the concept essentially boils down to redundancy and back-up systems and capabilities. Given the potential impact on human lives, automobile makers and their critical suppliers have, for decades, had to create systems within cars that can fall back on an alternative in the event of a critical failure in a system within a modern car. Though it can be challenging to implement, it’s an extremely impressive idea that, conceptually at least, has potential applications in many areas outside the automotive industry, including essential utilities like the power grid, as well as increasingly essential tech components and tech devices.

Thankfully, many in the tech industry have started to catch on. In fact, one of the most impressive demonstrations at the recent CES show was Nvidia’s focus on functional safety in some of their latest components and systems designed for assisted and autonomous driving. The company’s CEO, Jensen Huang, spent a significant amount of time at their CES press conference, highlighting all the work they’d done to get ASIL-D (Automotive Safety Integrity Level D, which is the highest available) certification on their new Nvidia Drive architecture.

While the topic can be complex, Huang did an excellent job explaining the effort required to get their new Nvidia Xavier platform—which integrates Blackberry’s QNX-64 software platform in conjunction with their latest silicon—to be ISO 26262-compliant and reach ASIL-D compliance. He enthusiastically talked about the specific challenges necessary to make it happen, but proudly claimed it to be the first autonomous driving platform to reach that level of functional safety.

As impressive as that development is, it also made me think about the need to apply functional safety-type standards to the tech industry overall. While using tech devices doesn’t typically involve the kinds of life-and-death situations that driving or riding in a car can, it’s no longer an exaggeration to say that tech devices have a profoundly important impact on our lives. Given that importance, doesn’t it make sense to start thinking about the need for tech products that have the same level of reliability and redundancy as cars?

As recent natural disasters of all types have clearly illustrated, our overall dependence on technology has become pervasive. In addition, the recent Meltdown and Spectre chip flaws have shown a rather harsh light on both how dependent, and yet, how illusory, our dependence on technology is. While strong efforts are being made through an impressive collaboration of tech industry vendors to address these flaws, the fact that a technology (speculative execution) that’s been a key part of virtually every major processor that’s been produced by every major chip manufacturer over the last two decades is just now being exploited, clearly highlights how vulnerable our technology dependence has become.

Though there are no easy answers to these big picture challenges, it’s clear that we need to gain a fresh and very different perspective on technology products, our relationship to them, and our reliance on them. It’s also clear that the tech industry could actually learn from some old-school industries—like automotive—and start to apply some of their hard-won lessons into both component and finished product designs. The concept of functional safety may not be a perfect analogy for the tech business, but there’s no question that it’s time to start thinking differently about how tech products are designed, how we use them, and what we should expect from them.