A recent article in online news magazine Slate makes an interesting connection between the tragic Ethiopian Airlines crash and today’s highly evolved automobiles. In the airline crash that killed everyone on board, it is suspected that navigation software called MCAS might have caused the 737 Max to nosedive after takeoff from Addis Ababa.
Owners of newer cars equipped with advanced driving systems say they are sometimes startled, sometimes frightened when the vehicle suddenly takes control of braking or steering – a sensation pilots have experienced repeatedly over the years as planes have become more autonomous.
Of course, another 737 Max crashed off of the coast of Indonesia in October, killing 189 people. Boeing says it will update the Max’s software, and hopefully correct any flaws. By and large, however, automation has made flying much safer than it used to be. The U.S. hasn’t had a major airline crash in a decade.
But is the example set by the airline industry one for the auto industry to emulate? Automakers and others are feverishly racing to see who can first offer to the public a completely autonomous vehicle, while ignoring that few drivers are trained as pilots are to assume control of a malfunctioning vehicle and avoid a car crash at a moment’s notice.
In fact, automation hasn’t made pilots’ jobs easier, says NASA researcher and pilot Steve Casner. “You’d think it would dumb down the role of the pilot. Contrary to expectation, you have to know more than ever.”
But Casner says we are fooling ourselves if we think everyday drivers are going to perform as well in autonomous motor vehicles. “I’m very concerned that even though aviation has shown us how to do it, we’re about to make a big mistake with cars,” he said. “Sitting there waiting like a potted plant for the lights to blink is not one of our fortes.”
Experts say today’s advanced driving features lull drivers in a false sense of security in which they pay less attention to the roads and traffic – and are less capable of reacting competently when quick thinking and action is needed to avert a motor vehicle crash.
This is all food for thought as car and plane technology evolves. Let’s hope the advances truly make us safer as we take to the streets and skies.