Lost in the putrid cloud of self-driving car clickbait, the Department of Transportation’s Advisory Committee on Automation in Transportation held its first meeting on January 16th, 2017. One look at its members is all it takes to know whose lobbying dollars hold sway in Washington. The largest constituency? A bloc including Apple, Amazon, Lyft, Uber, Waymo and Zoox, all of whom profit from you losing your steering wheel as soon as possible. They may cite safety, but there is only one objective voice on the panel, a man with true life and death experience at the intersection of human skill and automation:
Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger.
In a world where political hacks and “experts” are increasingly replacing those with real-world experience, Sully’s inclusion on the panel is a revelation. Best known for The Miracle on the Hudson, Sully’s entire career has been devoted to safety. Look past the mythology, and his is the story of the opportunity, danger and cost inherent to sacrificing skilled humans on the altar of automation. Sully has written and spoken extensively on the criticality of training and compensation for airline pilots, and his insights have clear applications to the future of the trucking industry.
In a recent interview, Sully made clear three simple messages: 1) we need real standards for self-driving cars, 2) the industry needs to reboot its approach to semi-autonomous cars, and 3) drivers education “is a national disgrace.”
Sully also ends his interview with a singularly authoritative message about human driving. TL:DR? If you love driving, read this to the end.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
Guess what? Words can hurt us, when life or death decisions are made on false assumptions. I’m talking, of course, about the language of Self-Driving Cars, that seemingly inevitable panacea into which Silicon Valley and the car industry are pouring billions to save us from ourselves. If technology is only as good as our understanding of it, then the automotive industry has a long way go.
The problem isn’t limited to Tesla’s branding of the word “autopilot”, but it certainly starts there, especially now that the California DMV has threatened to stop Tesla from using Autopilot as a brand name. Add the recurring debate over whether Tesla Autopilot was defective in the Joshua Brown crash, and obvious questions emerged:
What is an autopilot? Is Tesla Autopilot actually an autopilot? What does “autopilot” imply? Where does Tesla’s system fall short of real or perceived autopilots? Is the problem the “auto” prefix? The “pilot” suffix? For those who object to Tesla’s choice of branding, I bring you Audi’s Piloted Driving, the yin of implication to Autopilot’s yang. What does “Piloted Driving” imply? What about Volvo’s Pilot Assist?
In the spirit of unpacking this mess, I signed up for flying lessons and began a deep dive into the history of autopilots and automation. I also decided to reach out to a wide variety of pilots — from private owners of single-engined turboprops to professionals flying Boeing 757’s and Airbus A380’s — and take them out in a variety of cars, starting with Teslas.
This is Part 1 of what I learned. Read the rest over at The Drive…