Frankfurter Automatiken Motoren Werke

Jack Ewing writes in yesterday’s New York Times about the driverless car work shown off at the Frankfurt Automobile Show, with a centerpiece on Daimler’s efforts with their Mercedes S-Class automation work. Ewing reports that the S-class sold in the U.S. will be able to brake and accelerate on its own, and will make gentle turns and lane-keeping automatically as well, although, tellingly, the human driver must at least keep a light touch on the steering wheel (I wonder when someone will fashion a capacitive third hand to touch the wheel for you on the highway?).  The trend that is becoming clear is absolutely fascinating– automation technologies will decrease the cognitive load and the action load on drivers, taking the majority of nominal cases and imbuing the automobile with the ability to do most operations mostly autonomously. It goes without saying that this means humans will pay less attention behind the wheel, and the oddity with this is that it will all happen without the highly designed training that pilots receive in using autopilots, and the flight currency and experience requirements for pilots to ensure they stay at the top of their game if and when an autopilot turns off. Quite the opposite of the standard sterile cockpit rule for the average airplane, Ewing notes: “A self driving car could theoretically allow its owner to continue texting or uploading to Facebook.” The game we are beginning to play is a statistical one- computers will make less egregious judgement errors than silly humans; and yet, the human-robot ecology is a new one. The road system is far more crowded than the friendly skies. Will people stay aware enough for the statistical tail – for improbable events that always pop up when millions drive every day? Ewing notes that Carlos Ghosn of Nissan suggests that governments could lower the legal age requirements for drivers, and that one major problem carmakers face is that there is an alarming slide in auto sales among young people.  Drat! The young are opting for public transportation over the inefficient personal driving machine. And…automation comes to the rescue by wooing more young into being consumers of individually owned cars? I am not sure where the ecological sense lies in this argument, but I do understand the corporate-economic argument thoroughly.  I believe the implications of shared-autonomy, and the complex ecology of driverless cars and impatient humans will yield many more surprises over the next few decades before we settle into a comfortable long-term cease-fire between autonomy and manually piloted ground vehicles.

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