Beyond UBER: Planes, Trains and Helicopters Go Autonomous

CrashOver the past few months, we’ve discussed UBER’s need to turn their growing fleet of cars into an army of robots. UBER is under huge pressure to become profitable, and their quickest path to the greatest profitability is through autonomous cars. But UBER is not alone. Every form of transportation is turning towards some form of autonomous driving. Increasingly, though, the motivation (at least publicly) is not just profit. Robot ships, planes, and trucks are SAFE ships, planes, and trucks.

Individually owned cars will definitely benefit from self-driving cars. However, drivers are not actively demanding autonomy. Most car buyers think of autonomy as a luxury feature, not a safety device.

Even so, there are some individual groups that should start thinking about safety. Do you have a teen who will soon get their driver’s license?  Are they asking for their own car? Do you own an expensive new car that is a little too good to hand over to a new, inexperienced driver? An account with UBER might be a better option than handing your kid the keys. What about your parents or grandparents? Have health issues diminished their ability to drive? An autonomous car could extend their ability to live independently for years to come.  

Coalitions for Autonomous Cars are being formed by car manufacturers, technology firms, and transportation firms. Their mission is to make Americans aware of the high cost of our car-centric culture. For example, every year in America there are 35,000 automotive deaths, and four million accidents, plus a half a trillion dollars for hospitalization, car insurance, and vehicle repairs. That’s a very high price, and a very powerful argument for getting as many autonomous cars on the road, as soon as possible!

The trucking and transportation industry is aware of even more reasons for autonomous cars. They realize that autonomous vehicles open up possibilities for much higher profits. The cost of the extra equipment to make a vehicle autonomous would be paid off in a few months, at most, for a heavily utilized truck. These savings don’t just come from eliminating truckers from the payroll. Robots, you see, drive differently from human beings.

Unless someone tampers with their programming, robots must always obey the law, and must follow the instructions they are given. Human truckers are only loosely bound to the law and instructions from the Boss. Truckers routinely drive over the speed limit, and intentionally break the law.

Because humans must eat and sleep, they must also make compromises with delivery schedules. An unscheduled nap on a long trip may require speeding to make up lost time. Not taking that nap may cause an accident, especially if the driver is unlucky enough to be speeding through a patch of bad weather. Good drivers are motivated by profit, and want to complete a job as quickly as possible and then pick up the next load. Unfortunately, start, stop driving isn’t very efficient. Fuel is the largest cost for trucking (about 39%), followed by the cost of the driver. A robot driver that never sleeps, drives at a steady rate maximum rate, and almost never gets into an accident would save a trucking firm a LOT of money. A human driver could try to drive like a robot, but human emotions… getting angry at other drivers, panicking when you’re late, and other all too human reactions… would make most humans poor copies of real robots.

Business owners clearly have their foot on the gas for autonomous vehicles, but Federal and local government officials are standing on the brake. Today, it’s perfectly legal for a U.S. citizen to turn on an (approved?) autonomous driving system. After all, drivers have been using cruise control, automated parking, collision warning and automated braking for years. There is no problem if a driver turns on these features, and takes their hands off the steering wheel.

However, there is a problem when the car has no driver. Lawyers, judges and insurance companies aren’t quite sure who is responsible for the car when it’s driving itself. Car manufacturers could just throw a robot driving system into an existing car design, or they could do something revolutionary. They could throw out the steering wheel, get rid of the driver’s seat, and have all the passengers face each other. A sedan could be turned into an office on wheels, or maybe a bedroom when the office is hours away. A new class of cars would be the biggest thing to happen to the auto industry since the SUV.

But there may be even more going on in the air, than on the ground. Think about every flight you’ve been booked on that was cancelled or delayed. If your plane waits on the tarmac too long, or when your flight crew racks up enough hours, the plane goes back to the terminal and the flight is cancelled. Of course, the deliberate crash of Germanwings flight 4U9525 makes us ask ourselves new questions about the reliability of human pilots.

While big jets have the same semi-autonomous features (such as autopilot) as premium cars, these jets have not yet sold seats for autonomous flights. It will be phased in, perhaps starting with short distance connecting flights, or perhaps air cargo will lead the way, but it will happen. Just this week autonomous planes took another major step closer, as a commercial helicopter took a 30-minute flight in Connecticut.

Trains are a very mature form of transportation, but even trains have slowly added autonomy features. Today, whenever we have a train wreck, whether is it a cargo or a passenger train, news stories instantly ask, “Why didn’t the train have a computer to limit its speed, slow it before a turn, or slam on the brakes before the wheels left the track?” The next question is often, “Where was the driver?” Or, “How COULD the driver text, while the train was in a high-speed turn?” The same bad judgement and inattention that car drivers exhibit are being seen in train accidents.

Which raises a very interesting question, “Rather than a piecemeal approach to making trains more automatic, and safer… why not go all the way and install a robot driver?   

We’ve reached the tipping point, and autonomous vehicles are inevitable. Will they take over tomorrow, or at some time in the far future? I’d bet on a rapid implementation! Yes, there are piles of money to be made by replacing human drivers with robots, and the average American consumer will be the beneficiary as transportation costs drop by hundreds of billions of dollars. Even more importantly, tens of thousands of American lives will be saved every year (and many more crippling accidents avoided) as robots replace human drivers. Expect to hear lots more about the life savings benefits of autonomous vehicles… at least, that’s my Niccolls worth for today!

Don’t agree? Have other opinions? Share your opinions and ideas about autonomous cars and vehicles here! I’m listening, tell us what you think!   


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