It will be quite some time before we have a clear picture of what happened on board Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. But already the crash is raising questions about the role of automation in aviation systems.
Part of what makes Sunday’s crash so shocking is that such incidents have become remarkably rare. Automation has played a key role in improvements in the industry’s safety record. But many in the aviation community have long cautioned that too much reliance on automation could backfire, with pilots no longer having the experience to comfortably take over the plane in the event that the systems fail.
What’s more, the feedbacks to which pilots are trained to respond when flying manually are affected by automated systems, making it increasingly difficult to go back and forth between the two.
Such is the catch-22 of any automated safety system. By reducing the window of human error, automation offers a heightened sense of safety. The risk, however, is complacency could replace constant vigilance.
This challenge extends far beyond the world of aviation. When it comes to driving, a proliferation of automated systems, from adaptive cruise control to lane departure prevention, promises improvements in safety. But there is a danger that as these systems become more commonplace drivers will become even more distracted and lose the experience of manual driving.
As automation becomes more integrated into our lives, society will need to grapple with these tensions. Every technological breakthrough comes with trade-offs. It is up to us to decide whether the benefits outweigh the costs.
As a bonus read, our Congressional correspondent Francine Kiefer reports from Capitol Hill, where the Senate voted 59-41 to deny the president emergency powers to fund his wall.
Now on to our five stories for today, including an investigation into how police departments are incorporating restraint into use-of-force training and a deep dive into the current shift away from arms control.