The preliminary findings into a fatal crash in Tempe by the National Transportation Safety Board highlight the serious “handoff problem” in vehicle automation.
Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
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The first rule of safe flying: Pay attention, even when you think you don’t need to. According to a 1994 review by the National Transportation Safety Board, 31 of the 37 serious accidents that occurred on U.S. air carriers between 1978 and 1990 involved “inadequate monitoring.” Pilots, officers, and other crew members neglected to crosscheck instruments, confirm inputs, or speak up when they caught an error.
Over the period of that study, aviation had moved into the automation era, as Maria Konnikova reported for The New Yorker in 2014. Cockpit controls that once required constant vigilance now maintained themselves, only asking for human intervention on an as-needed basis. The idea was reduce the margin of error via the precision of machines, and that was the effect, in some respects. But as planes increasingly flew themselves, pilots became more complacent. The computers had introduced a new problem: the hazardous expectation that a human operator can take control of an automated machine in the moments before disaster when their attention isn’t otherwise much required.
Decades later, a new NTSB report is fingering the same “handoff problem”—this time in the context of a self-driving Uber car.