“It needs a reflash” is a common answer for many glitches that afflict automotive electronic modules. But as the industry moves to higher levels of vehicle driving autonomy, it has to face the “what to do right now?” question when they occur. Certainly one of the most sensitive components is an onboard camera. Because it’s often identified as the module most resistant to hacking, it’s also one on which systems rely to a greater extent than other sensors.

Is there a real-world concern? A General Motors system may have as many as four cameras (front, rear, and at each front side). Service bulletins issued last year by GM—two for the front camera and two for the rear camera—provide examples, including one from the four-camera “surround view” system. First, consider the front camera on Chevrolet’s 2016 Spark and Cruze and 2016-17 Volt. The camera’s image processor was resetting and was nonfunctional for 25-35 s. Most of the cars have at least forward collision alert, many also do automatic emergency braking and provide lane-keeping assist—all ADAS (a) or pre-autonomy systems.

The 25-35 s the camera is off-line means the control modules use the last known data during that period, which GM said may result in “unwanted feature interventions.” Among the possibilities are signals to the driver to brake or manually adjust steering to maintain lane position. This particular issue can be corrected by reprogramming. And if over-the-air (OTA) updating is made available, the “factory fix” could be applied to many cars with autonomous or semi-autonomous capability before they’re affected.

Another service bulletin, for the front camera on many GM vehicles, covered loss of driving-assist features from intermittent loss of the camera function. Reflash software was released to correct the issue.

Requiring driver intervention when a glitch occurs may be merely an inconvenience on cars with lower levels of autonomy. However, for the highest levels, for which there may not even be a driver in the car, the camera systems could need further redundancies to continue operation. Also possibility is the use of a specialized level of road service, perhaps including an OTA resetting to re-establish function of the autonomy level, akin to an OnStar door-unlock or remote onboard diagnostic test.

Other bulletins have covered the rear camera on a number of 2016-18 GM cars, including almost all models with two cameras (without the “surround view” system). In these, the guidelines in the display are misaligned or intermittently disappear (in this latter case there could be a “Service Rear Vision System” warning), problems for which there are software upgrades. Or on some 2018 Chevrolet Traverses and Buick Enclaves, the display also may blur or distort, problems traced to poor connections in any of several places in either of two circuits. Because the rear camera now is just used for a driver display, the effect is minimal. However, in an autonomous system, where the rear camera would serve an operational function, the vehicle could be brought to a halt in a backing-up situation and require driver intervention.

Most concerns about cameras to date have focused on their performance when there’s a snow, ice, or road film buildup on the lens if exposed (or the windshield). Built-in cleaning systems are being developed for those problems. With those mounted on the inside of the windshield, a “Front Camera Blocked—Clean Windshield” warning is displayed on some GM products.