Autonomous Vehicles


Aviation can Teach Driverless Tech Safety, Scholars Say

Automated driving isn’t the first technology to evolve quickly while under a microscope.

Aviation went through the same process a century ago amid early airplane crashes and it developed an effective safety culture that survives to this day, a Silicon Valley professor says. Beginning with the Wright Brothers’ first powered flight in 1903, pilots, manufacturers and regulators worked to share information and adopt a common language, says Francesca Favaro, an assistant professor at San Jose State University. Following that example could help to accelerate the development of safe autonomous vehicles, she says.

Favaro and an SJSU colleague, Sky O. Eurich, are researching how lessons from aviation might improve the way California’s Department of Motor Vehicles collects information about problems with AVs. They presented some suggestions in a research poster featured at the Automated Vehicles Symposium in San Francisco last month and have discussed ideas with the DMV.

The DMV makes the operators of AVs on California’s public roads fill out special forms to report all collisions, as well as all disengagements, or instances when a vehicle’s automation systems failed or had to be overridden by a human driver. Those forms have improved with two revisions over the past few years but the DMV and others involved with self-driving cars could learn from aviation’s example, Favaro said.

To begin with, aviation regulators ask for more details about the circumstances surrounding an incident, such as exactly what kinds of equipment the plane has and how long the pilot had been working when it happened. The DMV has missed the chance to collect as much data as it could, she said. Another key thing that aviation regulators do is clearly define terms and force everyone to use them, she said. Aviation reporting forms, such as the National Transportation Safety Board’s accident form [PDF], are heavy on multiple-choice checkboxes and detailed instructions on what each choice means.

By contrast, the DMV’s paperwork leaves many terms undefined. It also lets respondents fill in some blanks with their own words. For its annual disengagement reports, the DMV has allowed companies to use “software discrepancy” for almost any cause, so it could mean problems with object detection, decision-making code or an underlying algorithm, Favaro said.

Along with collecting more data and making it more standardized, agencies like the DMV could also make it more usable. Starting in 2016, Favaro and her students set out to learn about trends in AV safety by studying data from the DMV reports. The reports were publicly available online but the researchers had to enter data manually from scans of paper forms.

Other researchers have used optical character recognition to gather the data but the process is still harder than it needs to be, Favaro said. The DMV should extract the data and offer it in a searchable portal with multiple output formulas such as .csv and .xlsv, she said. The aviation industry is already starting to go there.

Making data more available and more standardized can lead to insights from more sets of eyes on the information, she said. The sooner the AV industry starts doing it the right way, the better. “You keep storing those things in those databases, because at some point some researcher’s going to have an idea,” she said. They will be able to find trends across longer periods and more car brands, for example.

There’s also an aviation safety practice that might help immediately with technologies that consumers can already buy, Favaro said. After the fatal crash of a Tesla Model X on Autopilot near Mountain View, California, in March, there were reports that other Tesla owners had seen Autopilot having trouble negotiating the same section of freeway.

In aviation, there are systems for pilots to report conditions like weather so that others can read the latest reports off a screen or have air traffic controllers read them over the radio, Favaro said. Drivers, safety agencies and carmakers might benefit from a formal way of reporting car safety problems.

— Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.


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