On Auto Pilot: NMA E-Newsletter #386

Humans like efficiency and we are always looking for ways to multitask so that we maximize our time to the highest efficiency.  Some of us are to the point where we want to take the human out of the equation entirely. When we were children, we dreamed of driving flying cars but probably never thought of sitting as a faceless passenger in a driverless car.  What for?  So we can be more efficient and safe?  Even in the craziest of sci-fi films, you rarely see a car chase with a driverless car.  You know why?—because it’s boring.  Because the cold efficiency of driverless cars will never provide the excitement of cruising down the road in control of your own destiny!

Airplanes have autopilot and pilots rely greatly on autopilot once they are enroute.  But pilots are already starting to have some of the problems that motorists will have after connected/driverless cars become the norm.  NMA member Greg Amy, a pilot, recently wrote this observation to the NMA in an email:

“Automated systems take the driver/pilot out of the loop, out of the *mindset* of operating the vehicle, all while expecting – requiring – that the pilot stay in the loop. Humans don’t work that way, neither amateurs nor trained professionals. We cannot – will not – maintain skills and situational awareness when we are not forced to; witness ease of loss of situational awareness while texting/talking on the phone. When things are going well, the systems are remarkable. But when a failure happens, it happens worse.”

One of the most tragic examples of machine/human failure in modern history is the Air France 447 crash in 2009.

In another email, NMA director Eric Berg, also referenced this Vanity Fair article about the Air France Crash 447.

“The 2009 Air France Crash 447 is a perfect example of pilots becoming too unskilled because of the automaticity of Airbuses in general. The autopilot disconnected because of contradictory air speed information coming from a malfunctioning pitot system. The pilots were unable to figure out how to recover from the stall that followed.”

The author of the Vanity Fair article is William Langewiesche, a well-known author/pilot and son of Wolfgang Langewiesche who himself wrote “Stick and Rudder”, the legendary book on the art of manually flying fixed-wing airplanes. His quote on airplane automation seems like a cautionary statement for motorists.

“It seems that we are locked into a spiral in which poor human performance begets automation, which worsens human performance, which begets increasing automation. The pattern is common to our time but is acute in aviation. Air France 447 was a case in point. In the aftermath of the accident, [many changes in systems were made]. All of this was fine, but none of it will make much difference. At a time when accidents are extremely rare, each one becomes a one-off event, unlikely to be repeated in detail. Next time it will be some other airline, some other culture, and some other failure—but it will almost certainly involve automation and will perplex us when it occurs. Over time the automation will expand to handle in-flight failures and emergencies, and as the safety record improves, pilots will gradually be squeezed from the cockpit altogether. The dynamic has become inevitable. There will still be accidents, but at some point we will have only the machines to blame.”

What makes us human is our need to be in control, to take risks and enjoy life on our own terms. We shouldn’t let the minority of people who believe that safety is all that matters to take over our lives by mandating connected and driverless cars for all.

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