When you learn to fly an airplane on instruments you take one of the biggest leaps of faith that you can possibly imagine. You are suddenly thrown into a world where you are totally dependent on what a panel of gauges is telling you with no visual aids to reassure you. In practice you nearly always have some visual stimulus at the most critical moments in flight – such as the let-down (landing) – but during training, with a hood on your head, you are not permitted that little luxury.
I always felt worse for my extraordinarily patient instructor, however. He had the non-enviable task of sitting in the right-hand seat and knowing not only what I was doing but was also able to see outside as well to understand what I should have been doing. Allowing that to happen without grabbing the controls is a level of self-restraint that I doubt I would be capable of.
Transfer that feeling of insecurity, which you suffer for the first few hundred hours of instrument flying in the air, to the increasingly possible world of driving a car just on instruments. Does the world in general have the temperament to trust what the machine is saying? Do engineers have enough trust in their own technology? And just imagine sitting there while the vehicle does its thing based on those readings. Would you be able to watch and put up with it?
Google has been trundling around Northern California with a small cadre of self-controlled vehicles for a while now (and have supposedly put in over 200,000 miles) but BMW has also reported testing hands-off vehicles on Germany’s autobahns. These aren’t just straight line drives that they are making; the vehicles know when and how to overtake safely, keep their safe distances, and behave just like well-trained careful drivers would. Sensors used for inputting data include radar, cameras, lasers, and ultrasonics.
The industry seems to have latched on to the term ‘autonomous’ to describe self-controlled vehicles, but, as some wit pointed out, they can only be truly autonomous if the car drives itself to the beach for a day out instead of obeying your orders to drive to the office…
When you add to the fear of allowing a machine that is not on rails to drive you, the desire of most of us to enjoy our driving experience creates emotional barriers that are difficult to see beyond. I am certainly not convinced by BMW’s emphasis on logging the details of every highway that their vehicles are traveling on: how will it cope with a truck jack-knifing in the lane beside you? The road worker who suddenly appears with a stop sign? Dirt on the camera lenses? The possibilities that a trained driver will react to but a machine probably cannot are endless, and image recognition technology is a long way from offering solutions. How even does a traffic cop stop a driverless vehicle – not for speeding or tail-gating or lane weaving, of course – when say a piece of the car is hanging off dangerously, unknown to the sensors or passengers?
The insurance industry must also view autonomous in different ways. Yes, there would probably be a reduction in road deaths (currently over 30,000 a year in the US) with human errors removed - and computers don’t drink alcohol - but how do you rate technical reliability? And when the crashes happen, as they will, are they more likely to be catastrophic with more high-speed head-on events?
Without a complete overhaul of what our roads look like I doubt there is any possibility of fully autonomous vehicles in the next couple of decades. Where they might be of considerable use, however, might be in heavy traffic conditions. Imagine the Callahan Tunnel in Boston during rush hours (actually, most of the day!): vehicle computer systems spreading a few of lanes of traffic into six lanes for the automated toll booths and then re-merging them into two lanes for the slow drag through the tunnel. All at slow speeds with complete merging fairness to everybody while the ‘drivers’ can text away, or play Angry Birds, or apply their make-up. Then, when you get off the congested highways, you will switch to manual, take control again and enjoy your drive.
There are also great arguments that driverless vehicles would be more fuel efficient and that the technologies required could put the US and Europe way ahead in the industry for a few more years. Maybe the answer is to provide areas on the highways where auto-drive is mandatory and leave the remainder of the roads free to have personal fun (not unlike the reporting and non-reporting schemes for air traffic that work well throughout the world).
There can be no room, however, for a mixture of auto- and self-drive vehicles on the same sections of roads. Imagine a busy four-way Stop junction where all the self-drivers do California-type stops – the polite, law abiding, auto-drive vehicle would never move off.