Autopilot and attention

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In 1914 the crowd at an aviation competition in Paris were amazed – and presumably slightly alarmed – when a man named Lawrence Sperry flew by with his hands off the controls of his aircraft.

Sperry was demonstrating the world’s first autopilot system. It was rudimentary and worked only to keep a plane flying level in a straight line, but it represented the start of a quest to automate tasks that would otherwise be undertaken by potentially tired and otherwise unreliable humans.

Autopilot is now considered one of the greatest safety features of modern aviation. But sometimes problems occur, and these problems require the attention of the crew.

In a study of 37 serious air accidents by the National Transportation Safety Board in the United States it was found that 31 were caused in part by inadequate monitoring. As the New Yorker magazine put it: “Nothing had failed; the crew had just neglected to properly monitor the controls.”

The air crews had been lulled into complacency and even boredom because automated systems do so much, so dependably, day in and day out. By the time they noticed something was wrong it was too late.

This issue is about to get much bigger with the rise of self-driving cars.

Tesla already fit their vehicles with a feature called Enhanced Autopilot, which can do everything from adjusting the speed and changing lanes to taking exits and parking.

One day it will almost certainly be the norm. But it seems inevitable there will be a period of painful adjustment as technology takes over while still requiring us to pay close attention – a potentially impossible ask.

In May last year the driver of a Tesla Model S died in a collision in Florida after a witness reported he had been watching a Harry Potter movie. The company said in a statement, “Neither Autopilot nor the driver noticed the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied.”

Tesla went on to note, “Autopilot is getting better all the time, but it is not perfect and still requires the driver to remain alert.”

And of course we should remain alert. But can we?

This article first appeared in the Lancaster Guardian where I write a weekly column.

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