The Difference Between ‘Autopilot’ and ‘Autonomous’

March 27, 2018

Wendy Parker


Hey y’all, guess what?

Baseballs and golf balls are both round. Both have unique attributes to withstand being hammered hundreds of yards. But you wouldn’t use a golf ball to play the World Series. And I doubt there has ever been a baseball on the green during the Masters.

See what I’m getting at here? They’re the same, but different, and they really can’t be compared or used interchangeably in the area each was specifically designed for.

Kind of like “autopilot” and “autonomous vehicles.”

If I hear one more person say, “They’ve been using/testing autopilot in airplanes for years now. Why the sudden cause for concern over autonomous vehicles?” I may just pitch a fit. Actually, I’m going to pitch a small one, right here and now. You’ve been warned.

Airline autopilot and autonomous vehicles are not the same.  They look alike, both having “auto” in the title. They sound alike, in theory. Both describe hands-free navigation of vehicles. That’s pretty much where the similarities end.

I’m not going to claim to understand or be able to explain either in a technical manner. What I can do is address some of the frequently spouted retorts to concerns about autonomous vehicle use on public roads.

First and foremost, the “airlines” have not been “testing” them over America for years.  Autopilot is used today in clearly designated areas of airspace, at clearly designated times. While we’re talking about airspace, I’d like to interject a couple of things.

I’ve been a lot of places and seen a lot of things, but I never saw a house, pedestrian, or bus full of children at 30,000 feet. And if you’ve seen these things, I suggest you stop drinking the blue water in the airplane toilet.

As far as what’s below these auto-piloted airplanes, I reference the above statement of “clearly designated areas.” Pilots don’t hop in, get the thing up to airspeed, and head for the lavatory to drink blue toilet water. There are processes and rules attached to the use of autopilot on a commercial airline.

It bears to be noted the first mechanism resembling an autopilot was, in fact, not tested in the skies over America.

Lawrence Sperry “demonstrated the credibility” of the invention by flying an aircraft with his hands away from the controls, and visible to onlookers. This happened in France, not America, and the year was 1914. Through the 1930s, further testing of the idea, done by various branches of the military were primarily over water, and well away from populated areas.

So let’s quit with the “airlines have been testing it in the skies above America for years.” That is wholly untrue.

Bottom line here is, you cannot equate the two, nor can you make dismissive statements about how people are overreacting about an autonomous vehicle killing a pedestrian.

So if you’d like to continue to make comparisons between the two, please make correct ones. They are indeed similar, but not interchangeable.

Get your facts straight.

Pilot Flying J
Wendy Parker

Wendy Parker has covered the trucking industry since 2012 after she says she “lost my mind and decided to climb inside my husband’s big truck to travel with him as an over-the road, long-haul trucker.” Her unique writing style that ranges from biting satire to investigative journalism coupled with her unbridled passion for fighting round out a wildly talented stable of writers.