A driverless car is parked while a robotaxis are being tested by the city of Silicon Valley in front of The Bay on Thursday, July 11, 2018. (The bay/YouTube via SFist)

Driverless Car Turns Into Rocket-Powered Flying Machine At Tesla Event

Driverless cars can soon take passengers to their destinations and get them back to work safely after an autonomous test event at a company that was supposed to be happening in October has been canceled due to COVID-19 travel restrictions.

Last week, Elon Musk’s SpaceX revealed plans for flying astronauts to the International Space Station and even though NASA had already been scheduled to arrive there early next year, it wasn’t clear when exactly the Crew Dragon would arrive at the space station. But thanks to a recent development, things have changed considerably now that a crewed vehicle could be ready next month. That means that by late September or early October, three people will have the opportunity to board the first privately owned human spaceflight.

The technology currently under consideration by SpaceX would allow humans to fly around Earth from behind the wheel of a fully automated “flying taxi,” which includes no seatbelts or safety harnesses. This approach could reduce the overall risk of spreading and contracting coronavirus on crowded airports, but it will still need an air filtration system and all precautions necessary to keep everyone safe. When it comes to passengers, they won’t be required to wear masks. If the rules aren’t relaxed, passengers who want to board up-and-coming fleets could end up as well-paid beta takers instead of paying customers.

The National Transportation Safety Board did not rule out conducting its own independent review, including a second evaluation to check if the decision to use drones instead of drivers was appropriate. Even though the NTSB did not rule out the idea of relying on self-driving vehicles for future flights, it made some suggestions, advising companies to consider how different environments like urban traffic might affect autonomous driving capabilities during certain flight test missions. For example, “a highly populated area with lots of pedestrians walking around may require more training than a sparsely populated environment without many pedestrians,” according to the board.

But the most important thing about this news is not whether or not autonomous systems will become part of our transportation infrastructure but when they actually do go into service and when they will reach the skies. In one sense, the current driverless programs represent something of a leap forward. There’s nothing quite as close-up as simply watching someone else drive your car on the highway or a bridge. They don’t have to worry about what happens when someone unexpectedly runs a stop sign and you accidentally hit another car and they hit a pedestrian. Most of the time, we can take comfort in knowing that when the robots get to the sky we can take off our shoes and watch them fly over our heads.

The flip side of that thought is that although these programs can create huge improvements in efficiency, safety, and speed, they will also result in enormous costs. It took two decades to build a fleet of autonomous buses—and we haven’t even hit full production yet! And while we know how much safer planes can be on routes involving small and medium aircraft, they’re so far from reaching widespread adoption that they’ll only ever make up six percent of commercial flights. So we won’t see any mass commercial adoption of driverless vehicles until several years from now. Until then, though, it’ll be safe to assume we’ll be using these new capabilities less often than perhaps we realize.

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