As engineering professionals, we are surely closer to the driverless car than the paperless toilet.

An old jibe amongst pilots concerns what you need to fly a modern plane. The answer is a computer, a pilot and a dog. The computer flies the plane; the pilot’s sole task is to feed the dog and the dog’s job is to bite the pilot if he tries to touch anything.


Dear Colleagues

As engineering professionals, we are surely closer to the driverless car than the paperless toilet.

An old jibe amongst pilots concerns what you need to fly a modern plane. The answer is a computer, a pilot and a dog. The computer flies the plane; the pilot’s sole task is to feed the dog and the dog’s job is to bite the pilot if he tries to touch anything. Well, according to cynical pilots. And indeed; today most long haul flights are handled by auto pilot. Although, I am a little twitchy about the A330 which broke up over the Atlantic; seemingly the computers (and presumably pilots) were bamboozled by erroneous speed readings due to iced up pitot tubes. Most instrument engineers will sigh when they read this; as they would have been exposed to the same situation many times over, in plants of every description.  

Interestingly enough autopilots have been around since 1912. Many of the modern autopilots still use the old Intel 80386 processor from 25 years ago (remember DOS and no odd operating system crashes). Trains are also highly automated (they only move backwards and forwards at the right speed and watch for red lights)  with no drivers and people are comfortable with this.  You only need to look at the London Dockyard trains/ various world city monorails and Malaysian Airport to see this in evidence. Although what mystifies me is the continual series of accidents with driver led-trains – for example, one driving into into the back of another or collisions at point crossings.

But the big prize to really automate  the car has two obstacles – technical (obviously) and a harder one – psychological. Roads are enormously complex places compared to railways and planes with relatively empty skies (and massively human controlled airports when they want to land).

Already the car is a massively digital and computerised animal with over 200 on-board sensors with a high end one possessing over 70 microprocessors (and even the lowly Tata Nano having a dozen). Satnav is a key part of many drivers’ daily lives allowing them to get around cheaply with satellite navigation in strange locations. Internet connectivity is achieved with a smart phone allowing all sorts of interesting information to be gathered (such as real time traffic information and indeed even the location of speed traps).

As we all know from personal experience; a driverless car has to deal with a myriad of issues – unexpected objects rolling into the road (a ball); giving way to emergency vehicles; other accidents; drunken pedestrians; sudden road diversions. But the payback will be enormous – a machine can react far quicker than a human to a hazardous situation. And if the cars on the road can “chat” to each other via wireless; they could minimise traffic jams and dangerous overtaking.

As far back as 1994, a driverless car drove through the manic traffic infested streets of Paris at speeds up to 120km/h for over 1000 kms. So the technology is almost here. Several cars (Mercedes and Volvo) now will brake automatically if they detect an imminent collision. And the Lexus (amongst others) does its own parallel parking with panache.

What should we do about this?

  • Read and talk to as many of your peers as much as possible
  • See the business opportunities unfolding here – whether you are mechanical/electrical/IT or electronically oriented, with millions of cars on the road, the re-engineering required is wide ranging and huge opportunities are evident
  • Apply these new proven automobile technologies to your next project
  • Ensure that whatever is done; that all cars and support gear is super safe
  • Think of the Law of Unintended consequences and figure out unexpected results which may need to be dealt with – either from an opportunity or safety point of view

Hopefully the humorous remark about the safety in cars, by Dudley Moore is not true: The best car safety device is a rear-view mirror with a cop in it.

Thanks to the Economist for references in writing this.

Yours in engineering learning

Steve

Mackay’s Musings – 26th April’16 #597
780, 293 readers – www.idc-online.com/blogs/stevemackay