You may not believe this, but a “ghost glitch” is actually a technical term of sorts. It means that there’s a problem that appears, disappears, reappears . . . but it’s a problem that can’t be easily reproduced by a tester or engineer.

It happens. As someone who devoted her career to testing complex technology, I used to encounter these ghost glitches in the test lab. These days, I encounter them in my car.

Toyota’s engineers reported ghost bugs

In response to the sudden unintended acceleration issues, even Toyota’s engineers complained of a “ghost in the machine”. The Times of Israel reported these findings from Toyota whistleblower, Betsy Bejaminson. As a translator for one of the law firms representing Toyota, Betsy Benjaminson had access to Toyota’s confidential emails and reports which she provided to the U.S. Congress.

Despite the strident denials from Toyota . . . Benjaminson felt that the documents in her hands proved that Toyota engineers knew there was a serious problem with their cars causing sudden acceleration, something well beyond oversized floor mats.

“There was a great number of engineers confused about why it was happening,” she told the Times of Israel. They even blamed the problem, in emails to one another, on a “ghost in the machine.”

But the ghost wasn’t floor mats or driver error, and the company knew it.

The engineers “sometimes admitted it was the electronic parts, the engine computer, the software, or interference by radio waves,” Benjaminson wrote.

Times of Israel

As our everyday products such as fridges, stoves, and cars become more complex and ever more reliant on software, these ghost bugs become increasingly common.

Do you have a ghost bug?

These sometimes only irritating little problems that come and go can often be signs of something worse to come. In my own car, for example, I have noticed that the following “ghost” bug shows up periodically (3-4 times a year) under the following conditions:

  • A clear day with no traffic at certain intersections, my vehicle will beep an alarm and insist that I brake, BRAKE NOW!

Something like this is mildly irritating until it’s dangerous.

Because one winter day, I didn’t get just a warning and an irritating beep.  As I came to green light at an intersection that had oncoming traffic, the brakes slammed themselves on (i.e., the braking software did). I lurched forward and quickly took my foot off the pedal because to be braking and accelerating at the same time is a disaster on snow. Had there been a patch of ice on the road, I would have lost control of the vehicle and easily could have slipped into oncoming traffic.

If I had crashed into another car or lost control of the vehicle and spun off the road, who would have paid the price for the software flaw? Me or the car company?

We know that the police do not have the required vehicle forensics tools to determine what went wrong when it comes to software flaws so the likely answer is that the driver, not the software, would be deemed at fault.

What can you do with these sorts of glitchy situations?

Fundamentally, our society need a proper way to support drivers so that we’re not the only one blamed when car software fails. Because my profession has trained me to find patterns associated with a glitch, I am now extra vigilant on icy days when these conditions present themselves. But like anyone, even the engineers who code this software, I just don’t know when the ghost glitch will appear.

Keeping track of ghost glitches

Consumers, too, need to be extra vigilant in keeping track of the things that are going wrong with their vehicles. When a ghost glitch appears and then disappears, it can give them a false sense of comfort rather than the knowledge that it could be a sign of a more serious problem.

At GlitchTrax, we’re coming up with a way to make it easier for people to monitor these technology ghosts. For now, however, people will need to keep track of this on their own.

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