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.
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.