Will Autonomous Vehicles “Fly”?


Will autonomous vehicles and connected cars “fly?” In a recent talk at MIT, Mark Rosekind, from NHTSA, made several analogies between the aviation industry and automobiles. For those who wonder about the transition from today’s cars to future ones, aviation may hold some clues.  In the beginning years, cars were called “the horseless carriage” but they did not turn out to resemble their horsey namesake. A future vehicle industry may come to resemble planes, more that cars.

Rosekind, was interviewed by AgeLab’s Bryan Reimer, from the MIT AgeLab and the New England University Transportation Center.  While they did not set out to talk about airplanes, there are some compelling reasons why the discussion often veered that way.



Rosekind has been the administrator of the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) since 2014. ). His safety model comes from the aviation industry and he observes, “If a 747 airplane fell out of the sky and crashed every week for a year people would notice.” (Est. ~500 seats X 52=26,000)  In 2013 there were 32,894 traffic deaths and that number does not include pedestrians and bicyclists that were struck. Although automobiles have become safer over time, NHTSA noted an uptick during the first three quarters of 2015.  

The majority of auto accidents are caused by the 4 D’s- Drowsiness, Drunkenness, Drugs, and Distracted driving. The 4 D’s are seldom issues for the aviation industry because of the high level of pilot training and certification.

NHTSA is currently trying to interpret regulatory standards for the autonomous vehicle and Rosekind promised that they would be developed in six months. NHTSA released an initial guideline for Google’s Alphabet in February. There is likely to be a larger federal role in autonomous vehicle development, just as there is in aviation.  


Future cars, whether fully autonomous or semi-autonomous, will require more communication standards- airport traffic control comes to mind here, although it was not mentioned in the talk.  Rosekind did note that within the vehicle “cockpit”, it would be helpful if there were a standard set of warnings or distress signals. The intention would be to standardize dashboards: for example, an urgent blinking yellow light would convey the same message whether a “driver” was in a rental car or a high-end luxury model.

Perhaps one of the most important reasons cited for the future involvement of the federal government is to ensure standards for data sharing.  Anonymous data needs to be passed along to identify problems, accidents, updates, or maintenance- like in the airline industry. There also needs to be a steering organization to keep the operating systems secure and reduce the risk of mapping errors or code hacks.


Underlying all of these issues is a basic tenet: as our software and hardware systems grows increasingly complex, the principal role of government may be to set standards so that people trust a new technology and try it.  Today, about 50 percent of the U.S. population says that they are unsure about letting a vehicle drive for them. Yet, in aviation, only 6.5 percent of the population has a fear called aviophobia, the fear of flying.  Both transportation modes require ceding control to others, believing in the technology, and rationalizing, as you buckle up, that that a crash is highly unlikely.  The consumer is at ease, whether they are flying on an Airbus or a Boeing, and for the future, whether their autonomous car runs on an operating system designed by Google, Tesla, or Uber.

If the reach of government here comes as a surprise, it should be remembered that the impetus for the driverless car began with the Department of Defense DARPA challenge, circa 2004.  More recently, they have sponsored robotics challenges.  The US. Government also played a heavy hand in aviation…sponsoring the experimental demonstrations of air mail carriers in 1911 and Congressional funding followed by 1916. If you put the two ideas together, perhaps it is not such a coincidence that the autonomous vehicle might bear a resemblance to aviation and that someday, it may help the autonomous vehicle “take off”.

Driving Mental Health- Your Car


Direction, lost, and destination are about driving  but they are also words we use to describe a state of mental health.  Seemingly, cars and mental health are not linked. If you search online with these two terms the results will be more fanciful than fruitful. Your search might reveal that you could donate your car to a charity that does medical research.  Or, you might learn that mentally ill people have driver’s licenses and get into some horrendous accidents.

But, what if mental health and cars were actually connected in other ways? What if we, and our search engines, were not smart enough to see the threads.


Many older drivers will tell you that the decision to give up the keys is one of the most stressful, agonizing decisions they have to make. Men and women may know that they can no longer driver safely….they may have been involved in one or more accidents…but they have a hard time facing the future without their personal car. Getting in the car is both a habit, and the mode that ensures them “autonomy” and “independence.”  It does not matter that public transit, Uber and Lyft, walking and cycling could fill in the gaps.

Perhaps if we did more studies of placemaking- when do older people get ill, when do they loose touch with others, we might see the connection between transportation and mental health. We already know about the strong, essential connections between physical mobility, health and well-being.


Although cars are not the exact focus, there is an intriguing paper by Affect researchers at the MIT Media Lab that pair mobility with happiness.  Over a 30-day period undergraduate students were given sensors, and also reported via a cell phone survey their state of wellbeing and measures of happiness (happy+ healthy+ calm+ energy+ alert).  Meanwhile, the phone reported and sent tracking data about whether the student took outside trips, their general level of physical activity, and the distances traveled.  One finding was that the more time that was spent indoors, the less likely the participant was to report feeling happy. Likewise, participants reported being less happy when they maintained their usual travel patterns, instead of venturing farther afield.

In our culture, and for younger people in particular, there are “mobility” alternatives.  Users can browse the Internet for things and places that interest them, and virtually participate with online friends.  But even among the MIT students, physical mobility was still a positive influence separate from virtual interactions. Perhaps mobility impacts are related to life- stages and weighing our expectations of healthy, happy people “like me”.


For the oldest seniors, and the aging Baby Boomers who created a “car driven” culture, we need to do some study. Will their sense of well-being depend upon being able to drive, or new transport alternatives?  We need to remember that older men will outlive their ability to drive safely by about 7 years and for older women, it’s 10 years. If we do not try to understand this conundrum and find alternatives to driving alone –  we might miss entirely that open roadway between cars and mental health.




Hollywood Meets Autonomous Cars

connected_mobility_web-grafik_en_02__mediumHollywood has prepped us for the autonomous car. It’s just that the message was subtle and it took a while to register.

In countless movies and shows, we witness the ultra-wealthy whisked away in black limousines and chauffeured vehicles…to consummate cliff-hanging phones calls and business deals from the back seat.  Another vivid Hollywood image is of stretched limos and tricked out Hummers occupied by jubilant rock stars and celebrities. Inside the blackened windows, we imagine an ongoing party replete with food, drinks, and more.

It is not clear that image of  the black car or the stretched limo  well describe our future autonomous cars, but they do provide context. In fact, a recent Ford motor executive commented on a future that looks like the movies.  At the 2015 LA auto show, Sheryl Connelly, said the future cabin could become a productivity capsule, helping people move with their office. Or, she noted, the car could be a place that shields people from incoming calls and email,  where they relax in comfort until they reach their destination.

Millennials and Baby Boomers are “miles apart” in their expectations for self-driving cars. A Carnegie Mellon survey polled 1,000 respondents  respondents about  what they would  do with the free time when the car took over the driving duties. Baby Boomers said they would read more. It is noteworthy that older respondents said they’d appreciate the increased safety provided by self-driving cars, especially at night, in heavy traffic, on unfamiliar roads or on the highway.

Younger people  had a different take: they dreamt of hosting mobile parties, eating lunch in the car, putting on makeup, and, of course, doing work. Perhaps the youngest  Millennials  watched a lot of Hollywood movies. Or, perhaps they saw the future and decided to claw back 50 minutes a day. 

The average commute time in the U.S. is 25 minutes. This does not include additional minutes spent searching for a parking space, parking, and walking the final leg.  And, at the end of the day the commuter turns around and does it all again….Often in a slog of afternoon or evening traffic.

This has not gone unrecognized. A recent report, circulated at the LA Auto Show, suggests that there is a relationship between time spent in congestion and interest in autonomous cars. In India, 85 percent of the surveyed population saw themselves using autonomous cars, while this figure in the US was 40 percent. People in crowded cities where parking space is scarce, waste hours in  traffic each day, so they see the immediate benefits of  the autonomous car. Note that the actual sample and statistics for the survey are not provided in the link.

Baby Boomers, a generation that celebrated driving, have routinized the commute- and found “audio” things to pass the time. They have been party to a succession of entertainment features, from over-the-air radio, 8-track cassettes, CB radio, CD players, and now, Sirius radio over the Internet.  But the phone, whether handsfree or handheld, has had more impact, and may accelerate the need for driverless vehicles. The National Safety Council’s annual injury and fatality report, “Injury Facts,” (2014) observes that the use of cellphones causes 26% of the nation’s car accidents,

Millennials have  taken it one step further and sought transportation options that let them take their hands and eyes off the wheel.

This may partially explain why they are the first generation to delay getting their drivers’  license, and to favor urban areas and  public transit.  Millennials have been the first to embrace Uber and Lyft,  although their elders (The Boomers) are now following suit. Millennials “get”  the benefits of autonomous cars, particularly the environmental impacts. But, the driverless feature may be of greatest significance for anyone who uses the phone while driving, and for aging Boomers, the elderly, and the disabled.

It may take a while before government indexes – the measures that capture GDP and Productivity catch up with what we are doing in our cars. Maybe the mobile office will let people work an extra hour or two everyday, as the Millennials wish. Or, eat on the go, literally. Perhaps  there will just be more time for games, downloads, and chat. If it turns out to be about entertainment, Hollywood will continue to inform us of  entirely novel things we can do in the confines of a moving vehicle.