Smart Cars and Mindless Planes


Why are cars that drive themselves considered smart, but airplanes that fly themselves considered mindless?  Despite working in similar ways, airplanes are not described as being “intelligent” or “pilotless”.  Even with a longer history, more sophistication, and greater success, avionics are regarded with a measure of contempt.  According the Dictionary of American Slang, being on autopilot means you are a cognitive state in which you act without self-awareness.  When you are on autopilot, your body is going through the motions but your mind is gone.  Yet cars that can drive themselves have been called “smart”, “intelligent”, and “effective”.

Smart Cars

The general public was first made aware of the possibility of self-driving cars on October 10, 2010 in a post on the official Google blog.  There the company announced that standard Toyota Priuses had been tricked out using a combination of video cameras, radar sensors, and laser range finders and had driven themselves over a total of 140,000 miles on the roads of California and Nevada.  The news created quite a stir and pundits gushed over the technology.  According to Zachary Shanan on

“The software can recognize objects, people, cars, road marking, signs, and traffic lights, obeying the rules of the road and allowing for multiple unpredictable hazards, including cyclists.  It can even detect road works and safely navigate around them.”

By April 2014, Google revealed in in another post that its vehicles had driven themselves another 600,000 miles with only one accident.  Considering only a few prototypes were built, this was an impressive number of miles.  The tricked out cars were expensive, requiring $150,000 in equipment including a $70,000 LIDAR system.  In the course of testing, Google discovered that the styling of commercial-off-the-shelf cars did not work well with the sensors and were creating blind spots.  To remedy this deficiency, the company recently introduced a new custom designed prototype; a roundish looking car with no a steering wheel, accelerator, or brake pedal.  Again the pundits have been laudatory.

About 100 prototype cars are being manufactured to Google’s specification by a firm in Detroit and project director Chris Urmson predicts commercial release as soon as 2017 but more likely by 2020 or later.

Mindless Planes

By contrast, airplanes that fly themselves have a much longer history. The term autopilot itself was first coined 70 years ago.  The first plane that could fly itself was unveiled at the Paris Concours de La Securite en Aeroplane in June of 1914 – over 100 years ago.  At the airshow, a Curtiss C-2 biplane with gyroscopic controls kept the plane level while the pilot climbed out on the wing.  Since then, avionics have steadily improved. By 1947, a U.S. Army Air Forces C-54 Skymaster was capable of taking off, crossing the Atlantic, and landing completely under autopilot control.  More recently, a major turning point for avionics was reached in the late 1980s, with the introduction of the first computerized commercial airliner, the Airbus A320.  Today self-flying airplanes and self-driving cars share the same microprocessors and use the same general computer architecture.  Over time, autopilots have earned a quite good safety record.  For a 4-,year period between 2009 and 2013 there were no fatal commercial airline crashes in the United States despite the airlines flying 2 trillion passenger miles.  Perhaps the most telling example the success of avionics is the confidence they have won from human pilots.  Many air travelers might be surprised, even dismayed, to learn that on average, human pilots are only actively in control of most flight for about 3 minutes.


Familiarity Breeds Contempt

John McCarthy, the computer scientist who first coined the term artificial intelligence, once lamented that “as soon as it works, no one calls it AI anymore.”  The difference between how we feel about self-driving cars and self-flying planes says more about our nature than it does about the nature of artificial intelligence.  People do not respect anyone they know well enough to know his or her faults but they can hold people they don’t know well in awe.

“When people see the products we make for the first time, it feels like science fiction to them because they shouldn’t exist,” said Anki co-founder and CEO Boris Sofman.

Though the forthcoming driverless cars operate using similar technology to what has been proven in airplanes, we still think of them with awe because they are novel.  Thanks to anthropomorphism, we don’t respect self-flying airplanes because they are familiar and we know them better.  Self-driving cars may be new, but within just a few years they are going to be an everyday reality.  As driverless cars go from being a sea-change to just how we live our lives, we may even regard them with contempt, or at least indifference.  In fact, this process has already started.  On the technology site Recode, Kara Swisher and Liz Gannes wrote that their test drive of the new Google prototype “felt a lot like a theme park ride.”

Comments are closed.