Driverless Cars, Pilotless Planes and the World According to George Jetson

 In Aviation Technology, Aviation Trends

Baby Boomers grew up watching the Jetsons, that lovable, animated family from the future who had a robot maid, a flying car and a totally automated house. Boomers anticipated a totally automated future. They just figured it was only a matter of time. They were right.

For the past several months, the airwaves, the blog-o-sphere and even old school print media have been chatting up the arrival of pilotless drones, driverless cars and automated homes. If you think it’s about time, the next couple of years are going to be fascinating. If you think the human race has collectively lost its mind and is about to give up control of their lives to legions of robots, the next couple of years could be terrifying. Reality lies somewhere in the middle.

Now that Google has embraced Sebastian Thrun’s driverless car and plans to experiment with using it on a limited basis on its own campus, the cat is out of the bag, or perhaps, more appropriately, the human is out of the driver’s seat. Google is hardly the only company interested in automated transportation. Driverless cars are in the works from traditional auto makers with iconic brand names like Mercedes Benz, Volvo and Nissan.

Since When Have We Been Willing To Give Up Control?

If you’re thinking I’ll never give up control of my vehicle, it’s too late, you already have. Our cars are run by computers. Anti-lock braking systems use sensors to automatically pump the brakes – what drivers used to do to prevent brake lock. Some cars even park themselves and have automatic collision avoidance systems to stop a car when perimeter sensors detect a collision is imminent.

It’s not just our cars either. Who hasn’t stepped onto a driverless monorail system at Disney World or at the airport for that matter. Have you checked out an airliner’s cockpit lately? How about the cockpit of a richly equipped GA aircraft? The autopilot is no longer an only-child, it’s got lots of siblings assisting it like GPS, NEXRAD weather, synthetic vision, etc.

Back To The Future

What does the future hold if cars are allowed to roam driverless? Will it be chaos or will it impose an order on our roads that we presently do not enjoy? As with any thing new, there are pluses and minuses to a driverless world. It certainly could reduce traffic accidents and possibly reduce fatalities. It would afford older people the freedom to drive after their reflexes, eyesight and hearing make driving themselves a precarious proposition.

On the other hand, driverless vehicles pose liability problems the likes of which no one has dealt with before. The Wall Street Journal recently asked who is responsible in the event of an accident? The manufacturer?  The software provider? The pedestrian who stepped into the oncoming path of the driverless vehicle? There certainly are a lot of new issues we’ll have to address as time goes on and lots of new regulations to create.

If The Experiment Works, Who Should Be Paying Attention?

If the system works, many will gain. Cities will have less traffic and congestion due to fleets of driverless taxis (Columbia University’s Earth Institute estimates that driverless taxis will cost 80-85% less per mile to operate.). Bridge, tunnel and highway engineers can use narrower specs to create more pathways with less space, since imperfect humans will not be weaving in and out of lanes or leaving a football field distance between cars. Cars can become smaller, lighter and more economical because they’ll require less human driver gadgetry.

It will all be possible with the help of satellites and sensory technology that relies on wireless communications. And because cars and taxis can drive themselves from a congested area to a less congested area, there is no need for parking while dining at your favorite restaurant.

The secret to the success of the experiment lies not so much in the technology as it does in the regulation and acceptance of it. For example, some states have already mandated that driverless cars have limited human control in case of an emergency. Don’t give up your licenses yet.

Why The FAA Should Be Watching The Driverless Car Experiment Closely.

That brings us to the other driverless vehicle of our time– the pilotless drone.

The military has long embraced drone technology.  In fact, at present they’re experimenting with the use of pilotless aircraft and driverless vehicles in hot zones.  Sikorsky aircraft in conjunction with Carnegie Mellon University’s National Robotics Center (NREC) and the Army’s Tank Automotive Research Develop & Engineering Center (TARDEC) are using pilotless Black Hawk Helicopters to deliver driverless vehicles to hazardous areas so they can collect intel from the ground without putting U.S. infantrymen in harm’s way.

Basically the pilotless chopper freights the driverless vehicle to the drop zone and the driverless vehicle starts reporting back to the troops as a forward scout. Score two for safety – thanks to drones and driverless land vehicles.

You’re probably thinking, sure, but that’s a well monitored, military experiment conducted under controlled conditions. What about out here in the civilian airspace with airline traffic, GA traffic and helicopter traffic entering and leaving from towered airports and non-towered airports alike? Who is going to oversee all that?

The short answer is the FAA.  In fact, that’s exactly why they’re conducting tests right now in six locations around the country. When it comes to small drones in the airspace (weighing 55 pounds or less), the FAA is expected to rule by year’s end.

The problem is the FAA has already encountered problems, both operationally and legally. For example, the FAA went after a commercial drone user in St. Louis for flying higher than the 400 ft. maximum for small drones. How’d they know the commercial user broke the ceiling?  The user posted a video shot from above the St. Louis arch which is 630 feet high. Another recent drone gaff happened this spring in New York City when a drone operated by a hobbyist crashed within feet of a pedestrian. Again, the FAA fined the operator. The fines, however, don’t always stick because local courts don’t have completely clear legal regulation to fall back on.

How The Driverless Car Can Make The Pilotless Drone Street Legal

This is why the driverless car experiment could help the FAA solve some of its small drone problem. The agency could mandate that all drones under a certain weight and class include software that limits their use to certain altitudes and speeds. Using GPS and collision sensors much like in the driverless car, this software would prevent incursions into restricted airspace and limit usage beyond FAA regulated speeds and altitudes. It could also help prevent collisions with other things like people, buildings and most importantly, other aircraft. The same destination programming used to get a driverless car from country to town and back again, could be engineered into small drones.

The important step is not just getting the manufacturers to comply, but getting the courts to get the operators to comply. Aircraft owners have had to mind safety directives from the FAA for years. Why shouldn’t small drone operators?  It seems like common sense. The kind of common sense a common sense guy like George Jetson would agree with.

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