Forget Self-Driving Cars: Autonomous Trucks, Trains And Ships Will Transform Commerce
Grayson Brulte
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Automated vehicles will happen in all industries, no doubt. During my 36 yrs as an airline pilot, the industry went from 3-pilot domestic crews to 2, replacing the flight engineer with automation. Shortly before that, the navigator became obsolete The Boeing 777 aircraft that I flew can, except for takeoff, fly itself — until something unusual goes wrong.

I can see a driverless, passenger-carrying train, because in an unusual emergency, it could just stop. And, obviously, there are drone passenger-less aircraft, but for transportation in potentially hazardous environments, such as air and remote ocean, it seems that artificial intelligence would have to be highly developed, to the point of thinking from “zero” when facing an entirely unanticipated emergency, before it would be capable of guiding human-operator-free, passenger carrying transportation vehicles. Even remote control by humans in such circumstances seems a challenge that could take some time.

Driverless cars, however, are pretty easy to envision. In fact, there’s a precursor parked in my driveway, a Mercedes ML400 with a “distronic” radar system and auto-park. After about 2 weeks of using the radar, I don’t feel safe in my non-automated car.

The new one is amazing. I can drive through 2 hours of Boston highway traffic with my feet flat on the floor, much easier and safer. The technology has a way to go, though, before I can move to the back seat to watch a DVD. And if anything goes wrong, I can still take over — which I had to do last week in a rain storm that kicked the radar off line. It screamed in yellow letters, “I give up, human, save us!” But if there were no human, it could at least stop. Not so in the sky and hazardous in ocean.

Another roadblock is public acceptance. I wanted a year old MB SUV with radar but had to shop the entire US for three months before finding one with that option — not because of cost — people buy the chrome package or other expensive options but not automation.

A recent MIT study concludes that the public isn’t ready for self-drive cars. Even people who have them cite poor training by dealership people on how to use them. My training was terrible-to-non-existing, but I know the concepts, from flying. Both the 777 and my semi-automated car are so much safer — in most circumstances. Even beyond the public acceptance hurdle, however, it’ll take some time before artificial intelligence can fully “think” like the human brain to solve unique problems.

The ultimate evaluation criteria for AI is “free will.” When it has that, researchers suggest, it’ll be “human.” Having free will, I guess, requires having creativity — the ability to imagine unique solutions, which, I suppose, would be a key to fully automated transportation. Probably won’t happen “tomorrow,” since we can’t yet even adequately define “free will.” But probably someday. In the meantime, maybe half-way solutions — like passenger jets that can hover and make coffee until the helper drone arrives.

There’s also the issue of what free will wills. If I want to “hand fly”or drive, I can shut the automation off. I think people fear technology taking over despite what people want. That issue has to be addressed.

As for opinion, as often happens with innovation, there are those who focus on, for example, the story of someone whose automated car crashed chiefly because the human wasn’t paying the required amount of attention (is that automation’s fault?), and there are those who emphasize the story of, for instance, the person whose automated vehicle drove him, in an emergency, to a hospital. Perspective.

For my perspective — and my dollars — I’ll take the radar, even before the chrome package, massage seats, and built-in DVD players, not only because a car that can drive itself is fun and “cool,” but also because friendly collaboration between human and machine could save (this) human life.