Autopilot isn’t just for planes anymore. It’s a growing component of the cars we drive today and the ones we’ll be riding in tomorrow.
Look no further than what Tesla is doing with its “Autopilot” feature, which hands many cruising and parking duties over to the vehicle’s computer. This week, the company announced that Tesla owners had travelled more than 100 million miles using the autonomous feature.
Autopilot and driving assist features are not going away. What this means is that driving a car is going to become a lot like flying a plane.
And this automation — which relieves humans of menial and mindless work — will also present some challenges in our automotive world.
We could soon forget how to actually drive.
Let’s consider an airliner in flight, for a moment. As you cruise along at 35,000 feet somewhere over the prairies while flying from Toronto to Vancouver, there’s a very good chance your pilot isn’t the one doing the flying.
It’s the autopilot system, supervised by a human, which is flying the plane at this time.
When air traffic control asks the flight to change its heading, reduce speed or descend to a different altitude, all the pilot has to do is update the computer with the new data. The computer then turns/slows/descends the plane, while the pilot returns to their coffee. I’m keeping this all very basic, but you get the point.
However, because pilots rely so much on automation, they can forget how to fly. Unfortunately, this reliance on technology can lead to tragic consequences.
Remember when an Asiana Airlines Boeing 777 crashed as it was about to land in San Francisco a few years ago? Investigators found that the crew “over-relied on automated systems that they did not fully understand.” Basically, the pilots turned off aspects of the autopilot system and couldn’t deal with it. There were other factors, too, but this was a major one.
How does this reliance on autopilot relate back to cars on our roads?
Just imagine this hypothetical situation in 2025. You haven’t really driven in several months, since your car does most of the driving and parking based on your smartphone’s mapping inputs.
You’re darting across the 401 at 100 km/h. Adaptive cruise control is keeping you at speed, lane assist is doing most of the steering, and you’re just daydreaming about that golf game with your buds up in Aurora coming up on the weekend.
Then, a toddler screams because they dropped a toy in the back, you reach over to grab it, and your elbow accidentally hits the switch on the steering wheel that disengages the car’s autopilot.
Quick, turn the auto drive system back on! But the car’s trip computer beeps with non-compliance because you’ve drifted out of the lane and onto the shoulder (it only recognizes proper lanes, silly).
Wait, what? You actually have to use that driving muscle in your brain that’s been collecting dust? Good luck.
We — automakers, insurers, governments, drivers — need to prepare for this scenario, or some form of it.
The future for cars is exciting. Just as autopilot has made aviation safer and more efficient, it’ll do the same for driving. Automation — whether it’s in the skies or on the roads — is a good thing.
But just as pilots are retested on how to fly manually, perhaps we should start thinking about recurring driver’s tests to make sure you still remember how to handle a car after a few years behind the wheel of a partially self-driving vehicle.
Because one day, that computer in your dashboard that’s been doing all the driving might conk out, and like a pilot in the sky, you’ll want to make sure you can take control of whatever machine you’re in and get yourself home in one piece.
Maurice Cacho is the Deputy Wheels Editor. To reach him, send an email to email@example.com