Did we really believe that surrendering vehicle control to a complex of bits and bytes was going to solve all our motor vehicle safety problems? Just look in the air for a clue as to what’s too come.
In grandpa’s days, when the steering wheel did not turn the wheels we simply took our Model-T to Joe the mechanic. He tightened the screw and the steering was perfect again. And when the hand brake was loose Joe just tightened the wire and we could stop again. Joe knew everything.
Now, when our vehicle stalls we take our vehicle to a manufacturer’s dealer. He pugs a computer into the diagnostic link connector and tells us that there is nothing wrong, except that a faulty wheel speed sensor, that is unrelated to the stalling, needs replacement. When our vehicle continues to stall and we continue to receive notice that everything is OK we continue to drive. Thankfully we will not fall out of the sky. But we could be struck by a high speed semi while we’re stopped in the middle of the freeway. Or many of our safety features like airbags may not function even though we are involved in a major crash. As other vehicles also continue to stall we remain puzzled but have no help or solution. Fatalities begin to mount as the stallings continue. Joe is now 105 years old and his tightening the screw or wire will not solve the dilemma.
Little do we know that the manufacturer has located a problem in the size of a little screw in the ignition switch. An item of minimal cost. The screw is quietly replaced at the dealership during regular maintenance activities and suddenly the stallings begin to disappear. Leaving many unexplained deaths, many that are not publicized and remain unknown to the general public. We move on.
Now comes the dawning of the driverless vehicle. Everything becomes surrendered to sensors, modules and computers. Steering wheels and brakes are not connected to the wheels. A sensor detects an issue of concern and the calculations inside a module are sent to a central brain that controls what actions are required. As guests inside our hotel vehicle we simply sit and read our newspaper on our tablet while wondering if the coffeemaker is supposed to pop out of the side of the left or right door. With that annoying human driver gone there will no longer be any mistakes as the electronic software will replace the human brain. This is the vision that propaganda has delivered to the travelling public.
Yet earlier this year a very sophisticated Boeing 737 Max 8 came crashing to the ground in Ethiopia. A Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, is preliminarily believed to be the problem due the appearance of a battle between the pilot and MCAS causing an unusual pattern of motion and speed just before the plane came down. A similar pattern was found in an earlier, Lion Airlines crash in October of 2018.
The average passenger sitting in the seat of a Boeing 737 has absolutely no clue as to what anything is or how it works nor does he/she know anyone who knows anything. It is only a handful of specialists, primarily at Boeing, who know. Or who think that they know.
When motor vehicle collisions occur in the future this is what we can expect. A society where no one knows what caused a collision. In the mass of commuters there will only be a very few specialists working at a manufacturer’s lab who will have some idea. Government regulators will have to develop ways of calming the public with assurances that they have everything under control and are conducting deep studies that cannot be fully explained.
Whether such a horror develops and the degree to which it is tolerated depends largely on how we decide to move forward. There are huge hypothetical benefits in cost savings and life savings that can be achieved with various automation of transportation systems. There are also great challenges that are emerging with respect to public monitoring of how those changes evolve.We if are unwilling to accept that nothing is infallible and are willing to publicly expose those failings, we can achieve our solutions much quicker and earlier. Unfortunately our history of hiding whenever something goes wrong can make this transition far more difficult than it needs to be.