Self-Driving Cars Shouldn't Rely On GPS Because The Sun Is A Giant Unpredictable Fusion Explosion

Illustration for article titled Self-Driving Cars Shouldn't Rely On GPS Because The Sun Is A Giant Unpredictable Fusion Explosion
Photo: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar (AP Images)

Space meteorologists are warning that the sun, the very thing that gives us light, warmth and life, could interfere with GPS systems and cause a lot of problems for the current crop of self-driving cars in development. You may have to start checking space forecasts before leaving for work in the morning.


The sun, you’ve heard of it, yes? That bright hot glowing orb in the sky is actually a continuous violent chemical reaction? Sometimes it can shoot out solar storms of energy and radiation off into space. Occasionally, these bursts come our way, and while they don’t really bother us on the ground, they can really mess up our satellites, according to Scott McIntosh in a recent Bloomberg report:

Scott McIntosh, director of the high-altitude observatory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, warns that self-driving systems should not be overly reliant on GPS when it comes to programming a 5,000-pound vehicle on how to get itself from Point A to Point B. In the event of solar trouble, legions of computer-driven cars would pull over and wait for connectivity to return.

“There is a lot riding on this, from an actuarial point of view,” McIntosh said. “All it is going to take is a couple of accidents” and the industry will suffer.

Solar storms are rated on a five-step scale, the biggest of which can cripple international power grids, knock out satellites and crush radio communication on the sunlit side of the Earth. McIntosh envisions a day when forecasts also include a synopsis of “space weather” so drivers—both human and digital—can account for these interruptions.

According to the report, there’s a satellite up there that can give us up to an hour’s warning before the storm hits Earth, which helped redirect flights away from danger areas near the poles back in September during one of the sun’s fits. The suggestion there is that you’ll be able to hopefully plan around a GPS outage in your commute in the future.

Beyond just a warning, most self-driving systems use a suite of sensors on the car to help with road positioning, and can base their location off of stored GPS maps instead of relying on a live signal. McIntosh warns that any delays or interruptions in the systems accessing that data if its stored in the cloud could still cause problems.

According to the report, we’re currently in a quiet period of solar activity that typically runs in an 11-year cycle. Since the last peak was in 2014, and the next spike in activity isn’t expected until around 2025, it should have little impact on self-driving car development but could cause a lot of problems in the long run if it goes unaccounted for.

The sun is just one more worry engineers have to account for when designing the robot cars of the future. The slow pace of developing legislation to ensure a safe development of self-driving cars is also worrying, as new laws will have to take every threat and risk into account. Even the sun.


If humans weren’t so bad at driving, we could all drive convertibles and enjoy the sun instead of worry about it. Since that can’t happen, we’ll just have to figure it out.

Reviews Editor, Jalopnik


Matt Brown

I love reading stories written as though nobody has thought of these things. I guarantee you, any thing you can come up, not only has it been considered, but there is an engineer somewhere sick of going to DFMEA meetings about it.