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Automation for the better?

July 14, 2016  By Paul Dixon

There is rarely a week goes by that we don’t see something in the mainstream media about drones, drones, drones and just in case you missed it, there’s always another drone somewhere else on the verge of doing something new and exciting.

The fun side is trying to imagine what I could possibly purchase through Amazon that would conceivably require expedited delivery via drone, but that is tempered by the also increasing reports of drones being coming more than a little too close to commercial airliners around airports, or helicopters interfering with wildland firefighting efforts and other acts of human stupidity. What motivates people to do this? The short answer is – I don’t know.

Let’s come back to planet Earth and take a look at something that promises to be here a lot quicker than we might be ready for it – the self-driving car.

While Amazon has scooped the lion’s share of the buzz with its drone program, the self-driving car is gathering momentum at an unprecedented pace, with billions invested in research and development already and it’s only going to get bigger.

There are currently 10 companies testing driverless cars on public roads in California, while closer to home, the Ontario government has passed legislation that will allow the testing of driverless cars on public roads in the province.


In a show-and-tell with federal and provincial politicians, General Motors Canada announced it would be putting up to a thousand software engineers to work on creating “the company’s software for self-driving, autonomous connected cars.” The race would seem to be between the old guard auto companies and the upstarts with the incredibly deep pockets such as Google.

The autonomous or self-driving car is an opportunity for those in the aviation community to sit back and watch what happens in the two-dimensional world that the automobile lives in and study the implications for those who live in a three-dimensional world. The fly in the ointment for the car developers is a problem that has already manifested itself in the world of commercial airliners – the human factor.

In California, when a driverless car is taken out in public, it must have a human sitting in the front seat who is fully prepared to take over at any point when the onboard computer finds itself unable to deal with a situation.

Commercial airliners, with their high degree of automation have already approached this threshold. Air France 447 comes to mind, where the human pilots were not able to deal with the consequences when the autopilot and onboard sensors couldn’t agree and handed off to the pilots. This is less of a problem on the helicopter side of the equation, where pilots are more in tune with their machines and flying environments.

On the plus side, we can expect that driverless cars won’t drink and drive, text or put on makeup while zipping down the road. And with a full onboard navigation system and 360 sensor protection, one would think that it’s clear sailing ahead. But it’s not, because there is one great black hole of despair for the auto-auto, the one thing that humans can still process better than any computer.  Uncertainty, the moment when the system is presented with a problem, or apparent problem – that is not part of the software.

Ad hoc detours such as road closures around a major fire or street closures for a parade or construction can defeat navigation systems. A dark patch on the road ahead, could be many things.  It may be a pavement repair, a sheen of water or is it potentially a deep hole filled with water? Does the car drive around, slow down or stop – especially at highway speeds? A ball bounces out on the street ahead. Is there a child close behind? How does a computer react?

These are the situations where the computer is going to toss the hot potato to the human companion. When the time comes, how do we separate the self-driving cars from the good ’ol you-drive cars? And how does this affect the world of aviation? Don’t think I want to be around to try and sort that one out. If you want to see one huge challenge to the orderly world of the self-driving car, take a drive from West Vancouver to Whistler and back on a sunny Sunday afternoon and watch the hi-jinks on the highway. If you were wondering about a future world where cars drive in orderly straight lines at one sedate pace, you will soon realize that it won’t be happening any time soon. Not in this corner of the world, at least.

Paul Dixon is a freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.


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