Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Who's Driving?

The debate concerning automation of transportation continues:

Shared via feedly // published on Marginal Revolution // visit site
Duopolistic battle between two man-machine visions
Sometimes when I talk about driverless cars I am asked to what extent we already have driverless planes today. The answer is a bit complicated:
The broader issue…is raised in an FAA report: "For any given situation, who will have final control authority?" The pilot or the flight management computer? Aircraft manufacturers and their automation designers have somewhat different philosophies. Airbus has tended to favor the machine — its automation is designed essentially to prevent the plane from getting outside its safe "flight envelope" no matter what the pilot does. Meanwhile, Boeing tends to give the pilot the final word — and its adherents can be adamant. A Boeing-flying Delta captain puts it this way: "When shit hits the fan, a pilot should be able to disengage all the magic and fly the airplane with basics…All you can do is hope the software engineers haven't screwed you with some magical sub-mode that, [sitting] in an office with a nice warm cup of coffee, makes sense at the time." For every fan of Airbus's "make-it-impossible-to-crash" approach, there's a proponent of Boeing's support for new cockpit technology only where "there is no adverse effect to the human-machine interface."
That is from Mark Gerchick's Full Upright and Locket Position: Not-so-Comfortable Truths about Air Travel Today, a pretty good book although much of the material may be already known to some of the potential readers.

It's interesting that the two remaining aircraft manufacturers have different philosophies concerning how humans are to interact with the machine. As mentioned above, Boeing aircraft can still have all automation switched off and their aircraft flown the exact same way Wilbur and Orville flew theirs. Airbus has taken a different route beginning with their A320 jets where there will always be some measure of automation active. It can never be completely turned off.

There was a crash of an Airbus A320 on a demonstration flight years ago in front of a crowd. The test pilots at the controls wanted to display a safety mode for the crowd which included potential customers which would not allow the aircraft to stall. The pilots mistakenly started their pass too low and the software safety mode never engaged as it was programmed to believe the aircraft was actually landing at such a low altitude. This crash destroyed the airplane and resulted in many morbid jokes comparing Airbus aircraft to chainsaws, but demonstrated how humans, design test pilots in this case, can allow software to fly an airplane into the dirt if they don't watch it closely every second. The pilots did attempt to save the aircraft but their inputs came too late to make a difference.

As we've mentioned before, humans are uniquely unsuited to sit on their behinds and watch computers fly or operate any machinery for that matter. After a while they will disengage. If the human is supposed to be the backup for a computer failure, they will be at a great disadvantage in saving the day due to complacency and the startle effect as we have seen in several recent accidents.

As stated in a recent FAA report, the issue is not going to go away and the danger of automation failures resulting in crashes increases as the residual of genuine piloting skills inevitably ebbs.

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Capt Rob