Self Driving Planes and Automobiles, Oh My        

Autonomy New Norm in Transportation

June 9, 2017

Self driving cars have a buzz and excitement around them – they have the allure of being futuristic and luxurious. But a self driving car isn’t meant to be a silent chauffeur. Rather, the purpose of the self driving car is safety and to protect the driver…from themselves.

Autonomous vehicles aren’t fully independent yet. They still need human drivers to monitor their driving habits and ultimately make the final decisions on the road if there should be a glitch. An MIT team has been using a Prius prototype that they have added several smart features on to test how independent they can make the car. With sensors and sophisticated software the car detects objects around it and tracks movements to predict its next move. When the human driving the car deviates from these movements in a way that is unsafe (i.e. falling asleep at the wheel), the computer takes over and steps in as a type of “guardian angel.”

Self driving technology is fine tuning a vehicle’s awareness and it’s capabilities to predict the safest course of action for the driver.

MIT has taken it one step further and has started collecting data through their “Moral Machine” surveys. On their site you are given certain scenarios and choose which is the lesser of two evils. For example, if a self driving car has to choose between swerving lanes to avoid a several pedestrians, only to crash and kill the driver, what should the car do? If these cars are meant to decide what is the safest, is it ethical to screech on the breaks and injure those in the car (critically), or swerve lanes and possibly hit someone jay walking? As the cars get smarter, there is more at risk and higher stake decisions we are giving them responsibility for. It is a moral algorithm that MIT is hoping to create from collecting these survey results.

Self driving Uber’s made a soft showing in Pittsburgh last year with a “safety driver” in the front seat in case of dangerous weather and for precautions (to ease the passenger). Uber’s autonomous car started out with legal issues and hiccups (parent company alleging they stole thousands of documents that led them to create the technology) but has started testing in more cities and recently appointed a new head of hardware engineering member, Brian Zajac (an Uber veteran), whom they hope push their technology further and wider.

Uber hopes soon they will not need the comfort of a driver at all, instead the passenger will be the only one in the vehicle.

Autonomy is reaching new heights off the road with Boeing recently developing self flying jetliner technology. Although planes currently run on (mostly) autopilot there is room for improvement and responsibility on the machine’s part. The goal is to be able to confidently trust the machine and for the human and plane to work together smoothly. Some argue the overuse of autopilot dulls the pilot’s ability to think on their feet and leaves them inexperienced in emergency situations. While other schools of thought are that the autonomy takes away human error and can be trusted better.

Boeing believes they can make aircrafts more independent and less reliable on their pilots.

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