Christopher Hart, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, spoke to 70 University of Michigan students and community members at the Ford School of Public Policy Monday afternoon about the innovation of autonomous vehicles. 

Hart is the chairman of the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission and the founder of Hart Solutions LLC. He has also worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration and was nominated by both President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush to the National Transportation Safety Board. 

Robert Hampshire, associate professor in the Public Policy School, introduced Hart before his lecture and spoke of Hart’s vast experience. 

“I had the pleasure of serving on a panel with him last year at Princeton reunions … and I figured that the Ford School community could really benefit from hearing his sage advice and his years of experience and his career,” Hampshire said. 

Hart began his presentation by discussing the common misconception of the complexity between aviation automation and automation on the ground. 

“In aviation, automation has shown amazing safety benefits, productivity, operating efficiency, getting more airplanes through the airspace and reducing pollution all at the same time,” Hart said. “And I think that the car automation scenario has even more opportunities for improvement, especially in safety.” 

Hart said many of the problems with autonomous vehicles stem from a lack of  graceful exits in case of emergency or unanticipated circumstances. 

“When automation isn’t perfect, you need to have some graceful exits,” Hart said. “The question is, how do we get there without hurting too many people in the process? The public is already skeptical of the whole notion of automation, including me.” 

Hart discussed Captain Sullenberger’s landing on the Hudson River — a case that he has personally investigated — as an example of the problems with automation and the need for personal control of these exits. He also noted that pilotless planes are likely more distant in the future than we think.

“There was automation that kept (Captain Sully) from flaring as softly as (he) wanted to, and he was very upset, as any professional would be, because any professional wants to know what does this airplane do? What are the capabilities of this automation? What does it do (and) what does it not do?” Hart said. 

While comparing plane automation to car automation, Hart expressed concern about the lack of training that is being provided on the ground. 

“In aviation, if the automation changes enough, they have to retrain the pilots, and once the automation is in place, it is locked down and that is what they train the pilots to do until the automation is changed again, and then it is locked down,” Hart said. 

Hart also discussed some ethical scenarios that may accompany this new technology. 

“There is an 80,000-pound truck coming at you in your lane and 15 pedestrians on the sidewalk, so what is your automation going to do?” Hart said. “Is it going to take you into the truck to protect the pedestrians, or is it going to take out the pedestrians and protect you? That is the kind of issue that I don’t think should be decided after the fact, and I think we need to have some serious discussion about that.”  

Public Policy graduate student Sam LeRoy attended the lecture and reflected on the new challenges facing this industry, especially considering the economic implications.

“Economic inequities will perpetuate the safety risk because until autonomous vehicles are widely financially accessible, we are going to be living in a system where these two types of cars aren’t equipped to interact with each other,” LeRoy. “It just reinforces the fact that economic inequities in the transportation space and in many other realms are deeply linked with technological developments.” 

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