Autopilot’s no substitute for life’s great pleasure

Autopilot’s no substitute for life’s great pleasure


A GIRLFRIEND told me a story the other day, and while I don't know if it’s true or not (if only there were some way to connect to a massive, world-wide network of computers that could answer this question), it made me think about how often we unthinkingly fall for car manufacturers’ hype.

Apparently there was an airport somewhere in the US where they ran an experiment with the explicit agreement of all the airlines that fly there, in which every plane coming in would land using only autopilot. Eventually they had to repair the runway, but only a four-metre strip of it: every plane that flew in landed on exactly the same spot. It was a stunning demonstration of how reliable and consistent the autopilot function is on a modern airliner. 

‘We can see the unrealistic expectations of driver assistance as an example of the marketing department getting ahead of the engineering department.’

But it’s notable that at no point did the airlines allow the planes to be landed without the full complement of skilled humans in attendance on the flight deck. The captain, first officer and navigator were all present, ready to take over if something didn’t look right on approach. Also to talk to the passengers to assure them an actual human was in charge.

This story may or may not be true, and that’s beside the point. The point is it could be true - we’re quite willing to accept the idea that the autopilot on a plane could fly us from Perth to London and land us with 0.000027 per cent accuracy (that is, to within four metres on a 14,500 kilometre, or 14.5 million metre, journey).

Which is why I’ve come to the conclusion that at least part of the issue currently facing Tesla and claims over the effectiveness of its driver assistance technology might be as simple as what they’ve called it. “Autopilot” suggests something as robust and reliable as the systems that can fly commercial passenger aircraft thousands of kilometres and touch down, regular as clockwork, on exactly the same four-meter-long strip of airport runway.

But the Tesla system demonstrably is not that good, and nor is any other carmaker’s, and people wouldn’t think they are, and would not rely on them to be, if they called them something different - “driver assist”, say, as many already do. We can see the unrealistic expectations of driver assistance as an example of the marketing department getting ahead of the engineering department. 

Electronic driver assist systems on modern cars are pretty good and they’ve made life simpler. Adaptive cruise control in city traffic is a godsend; I’ve been warned more than once that I’ve unintentionally left my lane on a freeway; stability control has helped me around a few corners; and parking is made much simpler on those occasions when one’s peripheral vision is obscured by fine millinery or upper body movement restricted by the new Oscar de la Renta (I am no Amal Clooney).

‘The systems have improved markedly, intervening when I get too close to the car in front or I don’t see the pedestrian walk behind me as I’m reversing.’

When cruise control first made an appearance on passenger vehicles there was a story about the unfortunate chap driving a Winnebago who set the control and then decamped from the driver’s seat to the vehicle’s kitchenette to make himself a cup of tea. It did not end well, and he’d driven full-bore into a ditch even before he got the kettle on.

The systems have improved markedly since then and I’m very happy to have them burbling away in the background, just keeping an eye on what I’m doing and intervening ever so subtly when my attention wavers or I get too close to the car in front or I don’t see the pedestrian walk behind me as I’m reversing out of the car park. But I don’t expect it to drive the car for me. I am not gulled into thinking it can by the manufacturer of my car over-egging, albeit unintentionally, the system’s function and capability.

One day there will be automated cars on our roads, and one day driver-assistance systems will be up to the task. But I fervently hope automation remains optional. I will take all the interventionist assistance I need, but I remain wary of systems dubbed “autopilot” or “DriveItForYou” or whatever else the marketers may come up with.

And there’s another reason I don’t like the idea of assistance systems going too far and providing full automation. I think we can all agree that driving is one of life’s great pleasures. And why else are we here, if not to indulge in life’s pleasures? Call me an old fashioned gal, but that includes the little adrenaline rush that comes from getting round that tricky right-hander just a little quicker than we thought we could.