Building both trust and safety into automated travel

Recent crashes of two Boeing 737 Max jets should help propel progress toward a better human-machine interface.

The cockpit of a Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft.

The recent crashes of two Boeing 737 Max 8 airliners provide a reminder of the difficult choices the world faces as it moves even faster toward “intelligent” transportation systems. Though the exact causes of the air crashes are still to be determined, the inability to make a successful shift from automated control to pilot control seems to be a common factor. That should be a useful lesson for almost all forms of transport being built to reduce the high costs of tragedies caused by human error.

Whether in the air, on highways and railways, or on the water, the transportation industry is undergoing a revolutionary transition in the use of artificial intelligence. Fully autonomous vehicles are already being tested on roads. A year ago, a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, was killed by a self-driving Uber car undergoing such a test. Despite the questions that the tragedy raised, Tesla founder Elon Musk said recently he was certain his “autopilot” cars would soon be able to fully operate hands-free.

Such confidence is up against widespread fear. More than 70 percent of American drivers would be afraid to ride in a self-driving vehicle, according to an AAA poll. Despite those sentiments, the truth is that technology is constantly making travel safer and bringing down the death toll of decades past. The Canadian Pacific Railway says it will soon become the first rail line to use electromagnetic sensors to detect tiny cracks in rail car wheels that can lead to fractures and derailments. Partial automation is already in newer automobiles, often equipped with features such as lane-change warnings and controls that keep a certain distance from a vehicle ahead. Half of the cars sold in the United States today are equipped with automatic emergency braking that requires no foot on the pedal. Such equipment is expected to be on virtually every new car by 2022.

In general, air travel is safer than ever because of constant innovation and better pilot training. But the consequences of any lapses in safety are so profound that eternal vigilance is requisite. It’s likely that the cause of the two recent crashes will lead quickly to corrective measures.

Today’s most innovative transport relies heavily on automation during crucial moments. Problems arise when operators take too long to regain control after a system fails. Long stretches of inactivity can produce what is called “passive fatigue,” which may lengthen their response times. Ironically, as planes and road vehicles become more automated, pilots and drivers will have less and less “practice” controlling their machines.

The next leap in such technologies will be to leave humans out of the equation altogether and avoid the tricky handoffs in the human-machine interface. Despite the recent troubling setbacks, “leave the driving to us” will probably be the motto of the machines that convey us in the future.

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