Autopilot: in the air ... and on the ground
Patrick Smith, of salon.com's "Ask The Pilot" fame, has repeatedly addressed the notion of commercial airplanes flying themselves, from takeoff to cruising to landing. While the technology exists today to enable all of this, he's adamant that it's simply not regular (or even common) practice.
Closer to earth, it's been known for at least a year that Google (among others) has been doing serious research into autonomous automobiles. In the February 2012 issue of Wired, "Let the Robot Drive" brings us up to date on the "ultimate self-driving machine."
Here's the question that fascinates me (and it applies equally to driving, flying, and other forms of transportation): How much safer does the "autopilot" need to be to make people comfortable with the idea?
Let's say that robot-driven cars crash half as often as those operated by people, causing half the fatalities, half the injuries, half the expense, and so on. Would we be willing to turn our lives and wallets over to the machines? Put another way, how important is our need for control (or, at least, the perception thereof)?
If 50% isn't good enough, what if the machine rate of accidents drops to 25%? 10%? 1%? Or taking the failure rate in the other direction, is 75% enough to make us comfortable to take our hands off the wheel? 90%? 95%?
Of course, the failure modes are likely to be far different. Drunk driving goes away. Tired driving goes away. Text driving goes away. (Teenage driving goes away!) Instead, those errors get replaced by imperfect vision and other sensor systems, system reboots (a REAL Blue Screen of Death), viruses and other malware, and more.
While few and far between, the machines are already among us. I suspect we'll gradually warm to the idea (not, I hope, in the "boiling the frog" sense), first seeing autonomous vehicles around us, then riding in them in slower speed controlled conditions, but eventually blasting along the highway at breakneck (not literally) pace.
At least until we hit that next traffic jam*.
* That even smart traffic systems can't resolve