Are car autopilots the equivalent of airplane autopilots?

It came as news to me that cars with self-driving features were already in common use, until I heard about the fatal Tesla crash, which became public in late June.

Tesla branded its self-drive function “Autopilot,” suggesting, even if not intentionally, that this automatic driving mode can be used as one might use an autopilot in an aircraft.

Tesla autopilot
Time for drivers to learn what pilots know?

A fairly basic autopilot with an altitude hold function allows a pilot to focus elsewhere safely for long stretches, especially if en route under IFR, with ATC providing traffic separation.

Even so, that isn’t an invitation to watch a Harry Potter movie, as the Tesla driver is alleged to have been doing. It would seem obvious that with vehicles driving in opposite lanes or approaching intersections, hazards can develop in seconds. And that state-of-the-art self drive systems perhaps aren’t a match for all of them.

Linguistically, “autopilot” has become part of popular vernacular. As in someone behaving as if on autopilot; in other words, having tuned out. “Autopilot” implies that George has it.

In aviation, we have learned to monitor our autopilots as we would monitor a human pilot. Or at least we have learned the importance of doing so. Autopilots with advanced features require extra vigilance, as a programming error can lead to catastrophe. And even autopilots on the latest generation of fly-by-wire jets with quadruple redundancies have been known to go haywire, requiring quick thinking from actual pilots.

My modest proposal is that self-drive features not be called autopilots. Not yet anyway. Call them “driver-assist mode” or something catchier like “eMode.” Cadillac calls its soon-to-be-released system “Super Cruise.” That sounds OK.

In the meantime, I’m going to enjoy driving my hydrocarbon-burning, non-digitally-enabled automobile, and using the low-tech cup holder feature for a Starbucks to help me stay alert.

9 Comments

  • Jeff: Thanks for writing this. Well said. A car’s “autopilot” has the task of traffic separation, a function we do not have on aircraft autopilots. Far more demanding than holding altitude and course and shooting approaches. I hope the pubic gets the message.

  • Tesla calls theirs an Autopilot to intentionally emphasize that it is NOT fully-autonomous driving, is limited to cruising on highway-like conditions, and that drivers need to remain attentive and ready to take over when necessary.

    That comparison is just like an airplane’s autopilot, where the pilot can rely on the autopilot to reduce workload for long stretches of time but the pilot must still ultimately remain watchful and ready to resume manual controls when necessary.

  • I agree with Bovine – in my view it is actually quite a good name. “Autodrive” would be much worse. It is a good reference to colloquial usage of “on autopilot” too, implying something that needs to be taken over when things turn critical.

    This also has been debated extensively in the media.

    http://money.cnn.com/2016/07/07/technology/tesla-autopilot-name/index.html

    There is a long tradition of beta testing with well-heeled technology-minded people with success. I fear things will get much worse when the cars become cheaper and start to land in teenagers’ hands. Hopefully by then there will be full automation, and not just autopilot mode.

  • It’s a terrible name because of the general use of the word, which implies that you leave it all to George and watch a Video or take a nap.

  • Maybe the best outcome of any airplane-to-automobile comparison stemming from this tragedy, will be that more pilots read their own POHs in a bit more detail–especially the autopilot supplement.

  • Most of the car manufacturers are pursuing truely autonomous vehicles. No driver in the loop. That’s nothing like what we call “auto-pilots,” which are anything but.

    Autonomous aircraft are coming, too. They’re a LOT easier to design than autonomous cars. You’ll know one when you see it, because it won’t have a cockpit, flight controls, or flight instrumentation.

  • Thanks all for an illuminating discussion. Clearly two sides to the issue. I imagine we’ll be seeing these new self-drive technologies get a lot more attention. Apparently a case to be made that they will reduce accident rate.

  • Sorry to be late to the discussion, but…the Florida Tesla accident has a couple of elements not mentioned herein or generally in the media: First, the separation between vehicles and the relative motion between vehicles is much more demanding on the highway than in the air. As the Brazilian ATC proved a few years ago, it is possible to direct two planes together, but it ain’t easy. In an airplane you follow ATC directions and are ‘guaranteed’ 1,000 feet vertical and miles horizontally. Relative motion is reduced by that separation baring a gross ATC error. On the highway lawful relative motion can equal 140 mph with separations measured in single digit feet. That is pretty close quarters!

    Second, and more pertinent to the Florida incident, the other driver’s perception of your vehicle dynamics is changed by autonomous operation. The reported facts indicate that the road was a divided highway without limited access. Much the style here in Florida, this allows left turns across opposing traffic, which is what the truck driver was doing. He obviously saw the oncoming vehicle, estimated it’s speed at 65 and determined that he could bull the other driver into slowing to allow him to make the turn. A human at the Tesla’s controls, would have slowed, with at most a muttered curse or a digital gesture. The computer however didn’t slow, apparently having failed to ‘see’ the white trailer against the Florida sky. The truck driver’s perception was expressed in his statement that the ‘sedan changed lanes’ to make the contact in the right lane. Just as two wheeled vehicles cause difficulties because of their unique dynamics, autonomous vehicles will cause problems for other drivers.

    An additional problem identified in this accident is the apparent lack of an impact triggered shut off mechanism in the Tesla vehicle. The driver behind the truck in the left turn lane testified that the Tesla didn’t reduce speed even after going under the trailer and emerging topless, but proceeded on down the highway at 65mph, stopping only upon hitting a sycamore tree in a roadside front yard! No explanation was provided for the Tesla leaving the road, had all systems worked it might have emulated the Payne Stewart Lear Jet and continued on down the road till the batteries ran out of electricity.

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