The Near Future Of Mobility

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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”.

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