Monday, October 17, 2016

Eastern Airlines Flight 401 and it's relevant to Tesla Autopilot

Whenever I rag on Tesla for their so-called "autopilot", it gets pointed out to me time and time again that what Tesla put in their cars is "just like the autopilot in an aircraft". In other words it's designed to be an attended system that doesn't work without human input.
That's true. But Tesla should not have hyped their system and called it 'autopilot'. They should have called it 'assisted cruise control'. The naming difference is very important because a lot of people think 'autopilot' means the car will drive itself, which has been proven time and again to be a bad assumption.
Yes, Tesla put big warnings on the touchscreen about how you need to understand this and do that and watch this and that when the system is activated, but expecting drivers to read that before hitting 'accept' is like expecting someone to read all 69 pages of Apple's iTunes end user license agreement.
And this is where Eastern Airlines flight 401 becomes relevant. That flight crashed in 1972 killing 101 of the 163 people on board. The plane had been flying on autopilot at the time of the crash. The cause was inadequate pilot training and unfamiliarity with a new system. In 1972, autopilots were still relatively new on airliners and during an attempt to diagnose a gear down fault light, the pilots inadvertently switched the autopilot from 'altitude hold' to 'pitch hold'. The difference is crucial because in 'altitude hold' mode, the aircraft adjusts throttles and control surfaces to hold the current height. In 'pitch hold' all it does is maintain the current pitch. The aircraft crashed because the pilots didn't notice they'd done this and the autopilot did exactly what it was told to do - it held the aircraft pitched in a nose-up configuration while it lost speed and altitude and eventually crashed into the Florida Everglades.
EA401 changed pilot training and autopilot programming forever. It changed the in-cockpit indications and even today, pilot training programs include lessons learned from that crash.
Cut back to Tesla - who activated their 'autopilot' on all their cars overnight and sent out emails to the owners telling them this. There was no training, there was no tuition, there was no guidance. The only thing is a single box of text that appears on the touchscreen which is frequently ignored by people just hitting 'accept'.
So if your argument is that Tesla's autopilot is just like that of an aircraft, then my argument is that drivers should undergo rigorous training and testing on how to operate it before being allowed to use it in a real car on real roads. Just like airline pilots do. And when something goes wrong, the system is changed, and all drivers are re-trained on the new procedures.
Only then can you successfully argue that what Tesla have created is anything like an autopilot in an aircraft.