What autonomous driving can learn from trains and planes

January 04, 2019 // By Zohar Fox, Aurora Labs
What autonomous driving can learn from trains and planes
As passengers in airplanes and trains, very few of us think that their safety depends on the smooth functioning of complex software-controlled systems. But most people are reluctant to leave the steering wheel in the car to a computer. The article examines what needs to be done to eliminate these fears.

Although many adults still report experiencing a fear of flying, the majority of people implicitly trust that planes will get us from A to B in one piece. The same is true for trains and cars, which are both regarded as safe means of transportation. Indeed, few factors are as crucial in the transportation industry as trust. If people did not believe in the safety of a train, plane or car, no one would ever travel with these vehicles. However, the arrival of autonomous driving and increasingly connected cars casts doubts on the safety of the automobile. Is travelling by car still safe, even if the driver is replaced by software?

Interestingly, the introduction of the autopilot in commercial aviation did not seem to bother most passengers, and self-driving trains are standard in many European cities – people still trust in the safety of planes and trains. For the same to be true of autonomous cars, the system must earn the public’s trust.

Trust needs to be built over time

Public trust was not always a given in the transportation industries. It was built over time with the introduction of numerous safety measures. Confronted with deep suspicion following early fails in safety and reliability, rail operators, for instance, perfected new engines and rail systems that greatly reduced boiler explosions and derailments – earning the public faith in trains. In the automotive industry, as the number of cars on the roads grew from a handful to millions, car companies created safety mechanisms such as seat belts, crumple zones, and airbags. But most impressive is the airline industry, which has achieved unprecedented levels of safety. Indeed, 2017 was the safest year on record for flying.

Although none of the industries mentioned above have made the transition to full autonomy, they took important steps towards ensuring safety and allaying fears about their potential perils. Looking at these steps, the automotive industry can learn a lot for the acceptance of driverless cars. Admittedly, the autonomous car still has a long road ahead. The recent fatal crashes involving self-driving cars underscore the need to ensure their safety – to save lives, but also to win the hearts and minds of a skeptical public.

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