Sunday, October 2, 2016

Lessons from History on Autonomous Vehicles and ADAS

Many commentators refer to the surge commercial interest in automated driver assistance systems (ADAS) and autonomous vehicles as amazing, which is entirely true.  But many also refer to ADAS and autonomous vehicles as unprecedented, which is not so true.
One key concern for completely autonomous vehicles---those for which the passengers have no vehicle controls whatsoever---is how to mix them with driven vehicles and pedestrians.  We have seen before a mixture of vastly different vehicles, namely at the dawn of the automotive age.  Cars and trucks co-existed with horses and horse-drawn vehicles for several decades.  This was a difficult combination and one that bears a surprising resemblance to the mixture of autonomous and driven vehicles.  Horses are, after all, ultimately autonomous, something that becomes clear once you mount a horse and start to ride.  Silent motion pictures give us glimpses into this world.  Many silent pictures were filmed on the streets without benefit of modern film permits.  As a result, they captured typical interactions between motorized and horse-drawn vehicles.
ADAS has clear precedent in aviation.  Airbus airliners have for several decades been full-authority control systems---the controls do not always respond to the pilot's command if the control system believes that those commands are dangerous.   The Boeing 787 is also a full-authority control system. These planes have been involved in accidents that can be attributed, at least in part, on their control systems.  Even in the absence of accidents, a long-standing concern about these control systems is that they allow the pilot's attention to lapse, resulting in longer response times by the pilot in the case of something happening.
Perhaps the car companies are studying these historical precedents internally.  I certainly hope so.  We need to learn as much from history as we can in order to make the new generation of vehicles as safe as they can be.

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