Nissan has unveiled a self-driving concept car based on the all-electric Leaf that is able to drive and park itself. Credit: Creative Commons Lic.
If the problems that robotics encounters in extreme environments are any indicator, then self-driving cars are a bad idea, according to an MIT engineer and author of a new book on the subject.
David Mindell, a professor of the History of Engineering and author of Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy, said his argument against fully autonomous vehicles isn't based on principles, but on history.
"That's just proven to be a loser of an approach in a lot of other domains," Mindell said in an interview with the MIT News. "There are 40 years' worth of examples."
Mindell, also a professor in MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, pointed to the Apollo space program, which landed U.S. astronauts on the moon six times.
The moon missions were originally planned as fully automated, with astronauts as passive passengers. After much feedback, astronauts ended up handling many critical functions, including the moon landings.
Pointing to a concept developed by MIT professor of mechanical engineering Tom Sheridan, Mindell said the level of automation in any given project can be rated on a scale from one through 10; aiming for 10, Mindell contends, does not necessarily lead to more success when compared to a happy equilibrium between technology and person.
"The digital computer in Apollo allowed them to make a less automated spacecraft that was closer to the perfect 5," Mindell said. "The sophistication of the computer and the software was used not to push people out, but to give them true control over the landing."
Mindell cited as another example commercial airliners, which do have automated systems such as auto pilot and even auto landing. But he said it still takes highly trained pilots to manage those systems, make critical decisions in the cockpit and often steer the planes.
"Commercial aviation is incredibly safe. Part of the reason is there are a lot of highly technical systems, but those systems are all imperfect, and the people are the glue that hold the system together," said Mindell, who is a qualified pilot. "Airline pilots are constantly making small corrections, picking up mistakes, correcting the air traffic controllers."
Mindell does believe "it's reasonable to hope" that vehicles with autonomous features will help to "reduce the workload" of drivers in incremental ways in the future. But total automation, he said, is not the logical endpoint of vehicle development.
"There's an idea that progress in robotics leads to full autonomy. That may be a valuable idea to guide research ... but when automated and autonomous systems get into the real world, that's not the direction they head," Mindell said. "We need to rethink the notion of progress, not as progress toward full autonomy, but as progress toward trusted, transparent, reliable, safe autonomy that is fully interactive: The car does what I want it to do, and only when I want it to do it."
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