Hostile Takeovers

Taking over in a semiautonomous car may not be as easy as it is in an airplane.

car plane.
Will you be ready to take the wheel?


Slip into the cockpit of an airplane today and instead of feeling like Mav, Goose, or Iceman, you might feel a little left out. Much of flying amounts to typing your route into the computer, pushing buttons, twisting knobs, and watching the controls move as if they were being operated by invisible hands. Colorful displays show you the status of the airplane’s systems along with the other airplanes, terrain, and weather systems in your vicinity. When something troublesome pops up, the computers let you know.

Now much of this same technology is coming to our cars. Like airplanes, cars aren’t fully autonomous, but the invisible hands of technology can drive us along significant stretches of our trip. GPS units map out our route and tell us where we need to go. We can press a button and the car will keep us in our lane, maintain the gap between us and the car ahead, and even apply the brakes when the guy in front of us slams on his. With a flick of our forefinger we can tell the 2017 Mercedes-Benz that we’d like to change lanes, and the car will look for an opening and handle the rest. And when any of these functions go awry, the automation alerts us.

This is an odd new role for people who are used to having busied hands and feet on control yokes, steering wheels, thrust levers, and accelerator-and-brake pedals. According to the operator’s manual, we’re supposed to sit back while the invisible hands go about their business but remain ready to jump in, grab the controls, and save the day in case the computers crap out. The question is, will we? When automation arrived to the cockpit, pilots talked to each other so much that the Federal Aviation Administration had to enact a rule prohibiting nonessential conversation. Drivers certainly chat with their passengers. Pilots let their minds wander to the point that they’re sometimes unsure of where they are. Drivers: ditto. Whipping out the electronic devices is already part of the job of flying. Drivers: duh. But will these distracted humans really be able to perform this rescue operation we call a takeover?

 My colleagues and I find that pilots sometimes struggle during rare and unusual events, but, for the most part, the relationship between pilots, automation, and the lure of distraction is a surprisingly functional one. The airline crash rate has dropped to a historic low. But will drivers get this same deal? Maybe not. In friendly skies, dust-ups between pilots, automation, and hazards ultimately get settled. Roads are much less friendly. When the automation needs you to take over in a car, you better be at the top of your game. An airplane is 8 miles high in the sky, and all pilots are really doing is ramming a 200,000-pound aluminum tube through the atmosphere at a little under the speed of sound. Whatevs. Drivers are doing something much more concerning.

In an airplane, pilots have three big hazards to worry about: weather, mountains, and other airplanes. They are mostly predictable and on-board systems help point them out in advance.

In a car, it’s not three things coming at you—it’s many things. People drink and drive and wander all over the road. They listen to stoner sludge metal cranked up to 10 (or even 11) and may never notice you’re there. Drivers cut you off. I have never once seen an airplane in front of me with a mattress tied to its roof with flimsy ropes. In a car, kids with hockey sticks jump right out in front of you with no advance warning. Along a highway, you’ve got giant pictures of seminaked supermodels.

If a car were like a plane, it would at least have a display of all the cars around you with the blood alcohol content of each driver listed next to the little icons. But that won’t happen anytime soon. Hazard detection systems can’t sense the many threats you face in a car. More importantly, they can’t think ahead like we do because they don’t have a model of how the world works. A computer vision system might detect an object at the end of a neighborhood street, but it won’t know that it’s a hockey net. The computer will not know what to expect next because it was never a kid and it has never seen Wayne’s World.

In an airplane, we’re way up there, and the ground is way down here. Pilots usually have lots of time to respond in a takeover situation. When training pilots how to recover from a spin, we flight instructors usually just let them scream for about 20 seconds so they calm down a bit. The airplane seldom drops more than about 500 feet in that time, and by then we’re dealing with a much more rational pilot.

In a car, when something goes amiss, we are often left on the edge of what we call biological time. Like a batter looking at a fastball, in a car you have a split second to think, make the call, and set limbs in motion. A distracted driver may not make it the point where he takes over the car. A deeply distracted driver may never know what hit him.

But even if you do have a second or two to react, next comes the problem of deciding what to do. In an airplane, when you encounter a hazard, the solution is usually the same: go around it. It’s not so easy in a car. Imagine driving down the highway and spotting something in the middle of the road. If it’s a ladder, you may want to swerve. But in which direction? What if there is another car or a cliff to one side one side of you? Maybe swerving isn’t such a good idea after all. Maybe you’ll decide it’s best to just hit the ladder. But what if, instead of a ladder, it’s a deer? Or worse yet, a cute little baby deer? Deciding what to do can be much more complicated in a car.

Driving is something that we all take for granted but we should probably all feel a bit of pride. We might want to seriously consider the idea that, in many ways, driving a car is harder than flying a plane. As made abundantly clear by the motorists around you during your morning commute, driving demands advanced intelligence.

So when you drive your new (or rented) semiautonomous car off the lot, maybe you don’t want to sit back, relax, and do something else. The technology that allows you to do that in a dynamic and hostile environment like our roads simply hasn’t arrived yet. You might want to pay as much attention to the road as ever.

But now for the bad news.

In aviation, we never figured out how to get even the most disciplined pilots to stare at a computer that, most of the time, seemed to be doing just fine. We get away with this and stay safe the vast majority of the time because airplanes are small and predicable and the sky is spacious and friendly. So will we be able to stay engaged in a semiautonomous car in the midst of a concrete jungle and perform when the automation calls us to action? I don’t know the answer to that—and I’m a little worried about it.

This article is part of the self-driving cars installment of Futurography, a series in which Future Tense introduces readers to the technologies that will define tomorrow. Each month from January through June 2016, we’ll choose a new technology and break it down. Read more from Futurography on self-driving cars:

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