Autopilot: How the Partial Automation of Airplanes Can Inform On-Road Vehicular Automation

A picture from the 2013 Paris Air Show; picture courtesy of

On June 19, the 52nd Paris Air Show began. This air show showcases technological innovations and acts as a place where airplane manufacturers showcase their newest planes. This year, a few key changes are being highlighted: how aircraft manufacturers are shifting away from focusing on one-time sales of aircraft to services such as using “Power-by-Hour” contracts and engine leases. One item that is not being highlighted is the automation of the aircraft itself. Airplanes are already highly automated and the civil aviation industry is continuing the process.  While on-road vehicle original equipment manufacturers (OEM) are still trying to figure out how to make vehicles autonomous, air travel has been greatly automated for decades. With all this in mind, the automotive sector would be smart to pay attention to the lessons learned by the civil aviation industry.

While it is an exaggeration to say that a plane “flies itself,” the pilot can- and often does- stop flying actively and tells the autopilot how to fly the plane after takeoff and before landing. The autopilot does not “drive” the plane necessarily; it merely absorbs the initial orders (and change in orders) of the pilot. These autonomous technologies are complemented by advance warning systems that can jolt a pilot to attention when necessary. Ground proximity warning systems (GPWS) warn pilots whether they are about to hit the ground or another obstacle. More impressively, a traffic collision avoidance system (TCAS) use vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication to identify whether another aircraft is in the vicinity, if the two aircraft are destined to crash if they maintain their flight plan, communicate with the TCAS on the other plane (or planes), and then the different TCASs tell the pilots on the different planes how to avoid crashing into each other. As a result of these innovations, passenger aircraft- and other aircraft- no longer have engineers or navigators on board. This means the pilots can be content to mostly monitor the flight, take over when human interaction is necessary, and know the only two times they are always required to pay close attention is during takeoff and landing.

One should note that in-air OEMs and suppliers are looking into further automated innovation in the airspace. Boeing says it is developing its own artificial intelligence to run its computer-driven passenger planes in the future. Meanwhile the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the United States’ Defense Department’s research organization, is interested in creating robots that can co-pilot alongside a human. One should also note that airplanes created by the European OEM Airbus are already heavily automated, with each task using three different computers each that give orders and select actions based on a vote. This ensures there is at least one back up computer available in case one of the computers fails. It appears that as on-road automation is becoming a reality, airborne automation is further ahead and continuing towards an apparently natural conclusion.

A Flight Management System (FMS) Unit

While automating flight is a global phenomenon, commercial aircraft automation is regulated differently on a regional basis. In the United States, pilots are required to oversee the plane throughout the whole flight, even if the plane is on autopilot. By contrast Asian carriers require pilots to keep the autopilot on above 3,000 feet (~914 meters). Furthermore, while aircraft made by Boeing prefer that humans make the final decisions while the flight management systems (FMS) guide and assist the pilots, Airbus planes usually fly themselves unless the pilot overrides it. None of these approaches are perfect. Automating the plane can eliminate the chance of human error. If one were to extrapolate statistics from the on-road transportation industry, one should consider the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) report from the mid-2000s said that 93% of accidents are due to human error. That number includes behaviors such as drinking and texting, but even if one excludes such situations, the data suggests that removing the human element from driving and by extension flying could save lives, if only the technology could get there first.

A white and red Turkish Airlines A330-300 with the undercarriages extended over a blue sky.

An Airbus A330, a heavily automated plane flown by Turkish Airlines

What can the on-road industry learn from all this? First of all, there is the debate about whether vehicles should be partially or fully automated.  Ford and Google have been arguing that one should skip the partially automated vehicle phase and go straight to full automation because people may become too trusting of an (incomplete) autopilot. As a result the “drivers” will stop paying attention to the road and will only return to active driving when they hear the advance warning system signal. The question is how much advance notice one should have. This question was discussed when a Tesla car got in trouble because one of its vehicles hit a truck while its driver was disengaged. In this case the accident escaped legal trouble because the driver had at least seven seconds to notice that he was about to crash and the autopilot gave him several warnings before he crashed. The question of when the autopilot should transfer control to a human is an important question in flight as well. Aside from the issue of how much time is needed to react, there is also the question of whether people can figure out how to react in the time allotted. Civil aviation has its own share of stories regarding warning systems and malfunctioning autopilots. For example, Air France Flight 447 crashed in 2009 partially because the pilots had grown used to highly automated airplanes and lacked the experience to fly the plane properly when the autopilot was disconnected due to weather problems. If the Tesla incident is an example of what can happen when the driver is too distracted or too trusting to heed the warnings, the Air France example suggests the need for backups for the autopilot. This may be why Ford says it will not start selling partially autonomous vehicles (AV). Instead, it says it will focus on manual vehicles (and those with driver assisted technologies) until 2021, when they promise to put their first autonomous vehicles on the market. By contrast BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and Volkswagen AG’s Audi are claiming they will sell semi-autonomous cars in 2018, with capabilities such as automated driving under a certain speed, which will warn drivers to take over with little advance notice, perhaps even 10 seconds. The Air France Flight 447 incident suggests the automotive industry should carefully consider copying the aviation industry’s reliance on multiple backup autopilot systems.

The aviation industry teaches us that regulation is imperative to safety and will remain an important issue, and there is no guarantee that countries will regulate automation the same way across the globe. If we are somewhere between fully manual and fully autonomous vehicles, that means regulators need to ascertain where the line should lie in terms of responsibility. As mentioned above Asian fliers are required to let the autopilot take over for most of the flight and the North Americans are supposed to treat their autopilot as a “flyer assist,” not a strict guide. Overall, we need to remember that autonomous vehicles are not a new, unprecedented technology. We have existing examples of autonomous technologies in aviation and there is no need to reinvent the wheel from scratch.


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