Speed Bumps on the Road to Vehicle Automation

Many obstacles stand in the way of self-driving vehicles.

The tragic loss of Germanwings Flight 9525 in the French Alps has galvanized discussions about pilotless aircraft, and whether we have the technology to safely replace humans with computers in the cockpit.

In broad terms the answer is yes, we do have the technology, but of course the route to full automation in passenger planes – and for that matter in cars and trucks too – is far from straight. To find answers we need to look at the journey rather than the destination.

Up in the air

Passenger aircraft are already heavily automated; computers handle even the trickiest segments of a flight when the plane is taking off and landing.

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Today’s airliners are already drones with an operator on-board rather than on the ground.

In fact, in today’s modern jetliners, a pilot action – such as turning the yoke – simply activates the computerized controls of ailerons, stabilizers, spoilers, slats, rudder, elevators, flaps and thrust, such that the desired maneuver can be executed optimally. Thus, today’s airliners are already drones with an operator on-board rather than on the ground. This computerized environment can be controlled from the ground, or operated in fully automatic mode.

Yet we are a long way from filling the pilot’s seat with an electronic brain for several reasons:

  • First, it seems that it will take a long time for people to trust their life to a pilotless plane. Note that many metro transit systems are basically operating automatically with a driver sitting in the front cabin only to address public concerns. These include Line 2 in Barcelona, the Victoria line in London, San Francisco’s BART system, and many others.
  • Second, people are unpredictable, and in many situations require human supervision from an authority figure who is “in control.”
  • The third issue is the threat of cyber security; what if hackers take control of the big flying drone and crash it, killing everybody on board and people on the ground?

Pilotless cargo jets that do not carry passengers might be more acceptable and could well be a precursor to automated passenger flights – assuming the cyber security issue is solved. The incentive for cargo carriers is the potential for reaping huge cost savings if they can take human pilots out of the cockpit. There are precedents too. The US military successfully tested fully automated, remote controlled helicopters that hauled goods in Afghanistan, for example.

Down on the ground

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Conventional vehicles will need to be modified so they can safely share the roads with automated equivalents.

Will road transportation follow a similar trajectory? The situation on terra firma is somewhat different, in that extensive trials of both driverless trucks and cars have already taken place and are ongoing.

One can envision a distant future when all road conveyances are fully automated. The problem is the decades leading up to that scenario, when both manned and unmanned vehicles ply the highways.

Automated vehicles will have to allow for the presence of other drivers around them. Conventional vehicles will need to be modified so they can safely share the roads with automated equivalents.

How will both types of vehicles communicate with each other? If a human-operated vehicle is about to change lanes or make an exit, will it be required to transmit these intentions electronically to automated cars and trucks? Also, will a computer be able to read informal road user signals such as flashing headlights or hand waving?

People do dumb things on the roads, to what extent will driverless vehicles be able to detect erratic human behavior and take precautionary action?

Consider, for example, behavior at traffic signals. First, we can assume that automated vehicles will not be able to go through a red light since they will be programed to respond to some digital communication at the intersection. However, manually driven cars routinely run red lights, as can be seen in busy cities such as Boston. How will an automated vehicle detect that a driver is about to act irresponsibly?

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How will an automated vehicle detect that a driver is about to act irresponsibly?

It seems that in the first phase of implementation when unmanned and manned vehicles share the road, automated conveyances will have to sense the intentions of human drivers. This will delay the arrival of a system-wide automated fleet until manned vehicles are equipped with appropriate communications systems.

Given these demands, it is reasonable to assume that in order to make way for automation, manned cars will require new capabilities and equipment, leading again to the cyber security challenge. The idea of an automated truck being hijacked by hackers does not bear thinking about.

Even if we navigate through the transition period and automated cars and trucks become commonplace, these issues will still have to be addressed. For some individuals driving is an enjoyable pastime, so in all likelihood there still will be vehicles on the road with a human behind the wheel even when these conveyances are seen as eccentric. Also, “smaller” issues like insurance and liability will still have to resolved. goldbrown2

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.

Yossi Sheffi is the Elisha Gray II Prof. of Engineering Systems at MIT, where he serves as Director of the Center for Transportation and Logistics.

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