Washington — Supporters and critics of self-driving cars agree there are lessons to be gained from automation in transportation sectors like aviation and rail. They disagree on whether the lessons are good or bad.
Advocates note that the U.S. aviation industry has used autopilot to fly jetliners for years with few problems. Train systems have been automated in parts of the country where transit is heavily used as well, which advocates say reduces the likelihood of deadly crashes on Amtrak and popular commuter railways.
Those advocates acknowledge that self-driving cars have a much higher risk of failure in unpredictable situations on city streets or expressways. However, they say they say that lessons can be learned about transferring control from an automated system to a pilot that can be useful as cars are becoming more capable of driving autonomously — including systems that can override the bad decisions of pilots.
Critics counter that aviation’s experience with autopilot has revealed issues can develop when control is transferred from computer systems to human pilots if the pilot is not paying full attention when they are not in control.
U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said he and other lawmakers have looked at the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulations for airlines as they craft new rules for self-driving cars.
“We’ve looked at FAA regulations and how that worked,” he said. “It’s one thing to have autopilot on a relatively small number of aircraft versus a car. Land transportation is more complex and it includes pedestrians and motorcycles.”
Peters and a group of senators on the Republican-led U.S. Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee have agreed on a set “bipartisan principles” for laws regulating self-driving cars that call for making safety a priority while still encouraging innovation.
John Maddox, president and CEO of the American Center for Mobility, a test facility for autonomous vehicles that’s being developed at Willow Run in Ypsilanti Township, said “there are things we can learn from aviation.”
That includes “transfer-of-control issues where you see the pilot decide to take over — or in some cases the system will ignore input from the pilot.”
“In the aviation space, there is one approach that prioritizes the pilot’s input regardless — and there is one that emphasizes the plane’s input, assuming the system is fully functional,” he said, adding that there is a valid debate about which approach will work better now for self-driving cars.
“If a driver is controlling erratically, perhaps they’re drunk, the vehicle would have to decide,” he said. “I’m not advocating for one or the other. That’s going to be a design decision that developers would have to make.”
And, he said, there’s a big difference between a highly trained airline pilot and a rush-hour commuter checking for Facebook updates: “Once we get our (driver’s) license, there aren’t really opportunities for retraining.”
Assessing ‘human factors’
Passenger-safety advocates have pointed out that transfers between autopilot systems and flight captains have not always gone smoothly.
The Sacramento, Calif.-based Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety group warned regulators in California recently that “authoritative studies by NASA and others have documented that even highly trained airline pilots tend to zone out mentally and are not necessarily prepared to make snap decisions and take control, lulled into complacency by computerized and automated flight systems.”
The group added: “As various scientific studies have concluded, it is not realistic or safe to expect drivers of semi-autonomous vehicles to be able to make split-second decisions when the technology itself has been demonstrated to encourage a lack of attention and distracted driving.”
Rosemary Shahan, president of CARS, said, “We’re opposing allowing the premature sales of vehicles that require the drivers to take control at a moment’s notice, as those are unrealistic about the human factors involved.”
Advocates have touted the potential safety benefits of fully autonomous cars, noting that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that 94 percent of U.S. car crashes are caused by human error.
“Thousands of lives every year can be saved because technology, while never perfect, can correct for human errors responsible for so much loss on our roadways,” Mitch Bainwol, president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which lobbies for automakers in Washington, told a Senate panel at a June hearing on self-driving cars. He pointed to quality-of-life advantages such as access for the disabled and elderly, and time savings.
Automation has been touted by safety advocates as a lifesaver in rail travel. Automated train technology known as “positive train control” is a safety measure that can prevent passenger and freight rail crashes. Such systems monitor location and movement of trains, and slow or stop a train not being operated in accordance with signal systems or operating rules. Positive train control is used in Michigan by Amtrak on the railway that runs between Detroit and Chicago.
Safety advocates have pushed Congress to mandate its use nationwide.
Railroads have complained that the automated system is expensive and complicated to install, especially on tracks that are shared by freight and passenger trains, although they have pumped millions of their own dollars into it. The railroad industry has successfully convinced Congress to push back a mandate that would have required them to have it in place by 2018. The new deadline for most railroads to have the automated train system in place is 2020.
The National Transportation Safety Board says the move to automation will be worth it. The federal agency said that since 2004 it has investigated 25 train accidents in which the safety system could have prevented or mitigated 65 deaths, more than 1,100 injuries and millions of dollars in damages.
Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the nonpartisan Washington-based Eno Center for Transportation think tank, said regulators may have pushed too hard when they put in a firm deadline for the implementation of the automated train control systems, prompting rail companies that were on board with it initially to rebel and lobby lawmakers to get the deadline extended.
He said automakers have already begun cautioning regulators about the risks of being too heavy-handed with self-driving car regulations.
“They don’t want to be over-regulated,” Puentes said of automakers who have pushed for a voluntary self-driving car legal framework. “They want regulatory modesty.”