Hi-tech biometric, smartgate-style solutions to passport control at airports have hit a problem. At one major airport, travellers with biometric passports face long delays as cameras repeatedly fail to read and identify their faces.
Passengers trying to get through London Stansted airport “are being hit by long delays because the sun’s rays are confusing the sophisticated cameras used at border control”, the Guardian reports. Stansted handles 23 million passengers a year.
At about the same time, in a separate incident in Florida, a man was killed while hurtling along in his “driverless” Tesla car when the vehicle, operating in driverless “autopilot” mode, collided with a tractor trailer and struck a pole.
What’s the link? The answer is sunlight. Tesla said in a blog post after the crash that “neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied”.
As a result, the Tesla’s windscreen slammed into the bottom of the trailer as it passed underneath. The car kept going, with its sole occupant reportedly watching a Harry Potter video. The car left the road, struck a fence, sped across a field, ploughed through another fence and finally smashed into a lamppost about 30 metres away from the road.
Both incidents involve hi-tech, computerised solutions, aimed at speeding things up and making life easier. Both problems were caused by that most universal and predictable of occurrences: sunlight.
Objects with a brightly lit sky behind them are hard to photograph, as most amateur photographers learn early.
In the Stansted Airport case:
The passport hall at the airport faces west, meaning that during summer evenings the cameras point straight into the setting sun. The high rate of failure to read people’s faces means those rejected have to queue with people who don’t hold biometric passports, hugely increasing waiting time.
Ralph Gross, of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, told the Guardian that the sun setting behind passengers would pose a challenge for the system’s face recognition algorithm.
All Stansted’s e-gates face the setting sun, reportedly. It sounds like some adjustment is called for.
In the Tesla car case:
Tesla says the accident was suffered under “extremely rare circumstances”. US safety regulators are investigating the fatal accident, the first to involve a Model S operating on Tesla’s autopilot.
The driver was a great believer in technology and had previously posted a YouTube clip praising the Tesla’s autopilot system.
Tesla shares fell as much as 3% following news of the fatal crash and the investigation into it, ABC News reported. Tesla stressed the unusual nature of the crash and said it was the first fatality in more than 210 million kilometres of use.
Tesla said in a statement customers had to give “explicit acknowledgement” they realised the autopilot was new technology still in beta mode under development, otherwise the system would remain off.
“When drivers activate Autopilot, the acknowledgment box explains, among other things, that Autopilot ‘is an assist feature that requires you to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times,’ and that ‘you need to maintain control and responsibility for your vehicle’ while using it,” the statement said.
Written by Peter Needham