Brian Baker: Still need a driver

Letters to the Editor
Letters to the Editor

I enjoyed reading Maria Gutzeit’s March 20 column entitled, “Eagerly awaiting the on-demand, futuristic life,” but in discussing self-driving cars she quoted Mark Schniepp, PhD, as saying that “…the current Millennials will be the last generation that needs to learn how to drive.”

Well, Maria, I doubt we’ll ever reach the point in car automation when people won’t have to learn to manually drive them. Let me explain.

By way of background, I hold a commercial pilot license, so I’m very familiar with aviation matters. Autopilots have been around for decades, beginning with simple, “wing-levelers” right up to today’s Category III ILS systems that can actually even take off and land without pilot input (at properly equipped airports).

But, experience has shown that even that most sophisticated equipment, installed in the most expensive and modern aircraft such as the Airbus A380, can—and does—still fail on occasion, and when it does the only way to have a chance at avoiding disaster is if there’s someone at the yoke who intimately knows how to handle that aircraft—a highly-trained pilot.

In some respects, cars can be even more demanding.

If an aircraft is at altitude, when a system failure occurs the pilots may have some time to identify and hopefully overcome the problem. They’re high up, and it takes time for a plane to descend.

That’s not the case with cars.

You’re right down there on the road, there’s likely other traffic right there, mere feet away, and other solid objects at the side of the road, while you may be hurtling along at 60 mph or more.

There’s quite literally no time at all for any analysis of the problem: the person in the operator’s seat has to be able to respond instantaneously and instinctively to the circumstances if the occupants are to have any chance of avoiding a crash if an equipment failure occurs.

That’s going to require trained drivers behind the wheel.

In fact, in aviation, because there’s such a high level of automation in today’s aircraft, governing authorities (the FAA in this country) require currency training for pilots to hand-fly aircraft to make sure their skills are polished, such training taking place either in actual aircraft or advanced simulators.

If we don’t do the same for drivers of cars, we’re paving the way for preventable accidents and deaths as car automation advances.

Brian Baker

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