There isn’t a dilemma in autonomous vehicles having to choose between harming their passengers or others.

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A recent study in Science “The Social Dilemma of Autonomous Vehicles” has highlighted how self-driving cars need to have algorithms to decide on actions in extreme situations – and even having to choose between protecting the passengers vs. pedestrians.  The study results indicate that participants favor minimizing the overall number of public deaths even if it puts the vehicle in harm’s way.  But when asked about which cars they would actually buy, participants would choose a car that would protect them first.  This study highlights an apparent conflict between morality and autonomy.

I like the study, as it raises good questions, and it describes part of one of the many issues in autonomous vehicles.  I also like the many news articles that have been written on this topic based on the study, as it helps raise awareness of the complexity of the issue – that it is both social and technical.  At the same time, for the sake of being newsworthy, and controversial, most narratives I read on the topic frame the study and topic as a social dilemma.  Yet when examined through a technical perspective, we will have dramatically safer situations for both passengers and pedestrians with autonomous vehicles, and there isn’t any dilemma.

Traffic related death rates are over 1.25 million deaths worldwide per year, and with aging drivers, distracted driving, higher speeds, prevalence of substance abuse all contributing to stubbornly keep the rate high.  For every person killed in a motor-vehicle accident, 8 are hospitalized and 100 are treated and released from emergency rooms.  Autonomous driving, when implemented well, will easily reduce this by 90%, and perhaps by 99% when fully implemented.   The response time, sensing, spatial awareness, decision-making, and reliability of an autonomous vehicle will be better than most of us, except perhaps for highly trained and talented drivers, and definitely infinitely better than too many of our driving population that cause most accidents (distracted, drunk, inexperienced, tired, reduced reflexes, etc.).  The autonomous capability allows us to have a safer response for both the passenger and pedestrian.

Consider that the autonomous vehicle can respond faster than most humans.  I have the lane departure warning system on my car, and it is much faster than me.  An autonomous vehicle will be able to brake faster, more optimally, and steer a better adaptive path that is more likely to minimize injury to both passenger and pedestrian.  Most drivers can’t brake as fast, or optimize the braking pressure, or optimize the steering adjustments during the emergency maneuver as well as a well-implemented autonomous vehicle.  The following picture shows a better braking and adaptive steering path with the best overall outcome for both passenger or pedestrian.  In the event of a collision, the overall speed, impact angle, etc. will be reduced.

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With autonomous vehicles, there will still be accidents, and there will be cases where it will be determined that the autonomous vehicle did not make the best decision.  But the overall absolute level of safety will go up so dramatically, that the question will not be “isn’t this the wrong car to buy because it may decide wrongly in an extreme case?” but “isn’t this the right car to buy because it is overall so much safer for me and everyone else?”.  The moral path is to embrace autonomous vehicles, and work towards a proper system design and implementation in industry, government, and with consumers.

Staying ahead of upcoming restrictive drone regulations

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How can drone developers avoid being shut down by an accident?

With the gradual increase in the use of commercial and consumer drones, we constantly hear about near-collisions and other incidents. Some of these incidents might be over-dramatized by the media or by whoever reported them, yet the overall risk is rising. In the UK,multiple close encounters of the drone kind have been reported recently, with some very close calls between small drones and large passenger jets. In a recent incident in LA, a helicopter was reportedly struck by what was probably a small drone, fracturing the windshield. Not only aircraft and their passengers are at risk – people on the ground can also get injured. In another incident, an innocent hobbyist’s drone clipped a tree and dropped towards the ground, causing serious eye injury to his friend’s son, a young toddler. In the Netherlands a small drone lost contact with its operator and flew away, gradually running out of battery, then eventually descended onto a busy highway. Although the incident did not result in any damage to people or equipment, it did damage the local drone industry, which was shortly thereafter subjected to extensive flight restrictions. In Vancouver, there have been a number of cases of drones reported near the final approach to YVR and at least a couple of cases when commercial drones crashed and caused minor damage to parked vehicles. YVR airport has recently launched a drone awareness program.

Small drones can help reduce emissions (by replacing larger aircraft for similar operation), save lives through search & rescue operations, replace manned aircraft in dangerous operations, aid in “precision agriculture” that helps produce better yields, help inspect smoke stacks and wind-turbines without the need for downtime, and many other possible applications. When designed and used appropriately, the utility of drones is enormous, and this utility is the essence of why the commercial drone industry has been growing so quickly. Drones can do a lot to advance society.

One of the major barriers to the full public acceptance of drones is that they pose safety concerns to the public. Typical root causes of incidents to date include:

  • Irresponsible operation. Not all drone operators are as experienced, cautious, or responsible as the best commercial operators. The fact that consumer drones are relatively inexpensive makes it possible to start a small business using drones at relatively low (apparent) risk, or for a user to purchase a unit for hobby purposes, with little experience or knowledge. Remote control airplane hobbyists are generally responsible, knowledgeable, and have the required skill to safely fly their models; however, modern drones and particularly the multirotor type are easy to operate anywhere, even for the uninformed or inexperienced operator. Owning and operating a drone safely, requires knowledge, skill, and responsibility. One can begin by taking not-too-costly drone courses, either online or in class.
  • Technical problems associated with performance, reliability, or other shortfalls, for example:
    • Drone flyaway, where a drone suddenly flies away due to a broken communication link with the remote control unit (because of remote control failure or radio interference), a software glitch, operator error, design issues, etc.
    • Engine failure. A variety of solutions have been developed that allow a multirotor drone to recover from engine failure, while many of the products currently on the market do not have such recovery capability.   With fixed wing drones, loss of an engine is generally easier to recover from.
    • Loss of control, for example because of interference confusing the unit’s compass, GPS, or inertial sensors, or due to incorrect orientation or calibration of the unit’s compass (“toilet bowl effect”).
    • Power failure due to battery failure or wiring issues.

Drone technology improvements are enabling more capable and lower cost drones, increasing the numbers of drones and the overall safety risk. Improvements include enabling technologies such as lithium polymer batteries, flight control and ground control station software, small-size (low-weight) cameras and other sensors, and small flight controllers based on solid state electronic components.   There are also numerous technologies and techniques that enhance the reliable operation of drones, such as monitoring battery hours/cycles/performance, setting parameters properly, performing calibration, etc. Flight control has become more affordable with software-enabled augmentation of lower-accuracy inertial sensors.

There is significant opportunity for improving the safety and reliability of small drones to the necessary level, by developing more robust system architectures, improving operational procedures and operator qualifications, technology innovation, improved regulation, and by following more rigorous techniques in the design and manufacturing of these products. Most drones do not fully employ the proven and robust approaches used in the manned aircraft industry in the areas of design, testing, regulation, maintenance, inspection, and other best practices. While some of these approaches are more rigorous and expensive than necessary, and can be relaxed somewhat to be suitable for the drone industry, there is high value in many of these approaches that can lead to both adequate safety and risk profiles, and low enough cost and weight.

Regulations are developing worldwide, and all in the direction of more restrictive or higher required capability and proof. In some countries, there is a move towards restricting the operation of drones near built-up areas and air-fields to “compliant systems” only, which is a challenge for all drone developers, and will likely leave some of the lower-cost manufacturers behind. Manufacturers who are proactive in economically developing reliable, safer, compliant products will be the most successful in the marketplace, as they will be able to operate where others cannot and will avoid reliability issues in the marketplace. Even consumer drones are complex products, and their safe operation an even more complex challenge. One major incident caused by technical failure, or by a design that does not prevent user error, could result in a damaging effect on the national or global drone market.

A systems approach to this complex issue that combines proactive strategy, careful risk analysis, economically innovative solutions, and best practices tailored to the drone industry will enable leading drone developers to get ahead on this issue. Such effort may seem costly, but is by far outweighed by the potential repercussions of failure to prevent an incident, even if it has been caused by “operator error”. It you think safety is too costly, try an accident!