14 July 2013

Flying the 777 and Truck Driving: When Computers Go Bad

The NTSB has issued some preliminary information on the cause Asiana Boeing 777 crash at San Francisco international Airport.

The flight recorder shows that the aircraft speed was 30+ knots too slow for landing. Audible alarms and the “stick shaker” warned the pilots that the aircraft was about to stall. Presumably, they increased engine power, but it was too late.

The NTSB reports that the engine throttles were under computer control for landing. 

The International Airline pilots Association has decried the release of any information concerning causation. Release of the information so far really doesn’t bother me. Investigations of airline crashes are notoriously thorough.  If a cause other than or in addition to low speed is established, we will know in good time.

Of course, somebody will be filing suit soon. Such quick trigger pulls are among the worst things that lawyers do.

Some pilots have observed that a pilot in charge of an aircraft is responsible for the little things like making sure the aircraft is going fast enough to keep flying.

Well, I’m not a pilot.  Other than wondering about the obvious, I’m not entitled to an opinion about causation.

Perhaps, however, we can look at this as an extreme example of a technological problem which is becoming more prevalent. As technology, particularly computer control, is taking the place of human decision-making and input, human experience is reduced and human skill has deteriorated. If computers land aircraft, humans have less opportunities to do so and probably won’t be as good at it.

We wouldn’t have technology if weren’t advantageous. But at some point, this phenomenon of skill reduction becomes so pronounced that now and then we should be questioning our reliance on technology.

The first time the problem obviously reared its head was when automatic transmissions were becoming the norm on trucks. Simple Newtonian physics teaches us about the behavior of masses in motion.  A mass at rest takes power to get into motion. A mass in motion tends to stay in motion. Therefore, a heavy truck should be handled with some care and skill. If it gets away from you, this moving mass can cause a lot of damage. 

I had very little experience with a manual transmission until I went to work at the Boy Scout camp when I was 18. One day I was sent to town to the hardware store in the camp truck. It was a 1963 Dodge stake bed with a column shifter.  Town was 10 miles away and down off a big ridge. It was a sink or swim kind of situation. I swam.

In the 1960s, fewer and fewer automobiles were made with manual shifters. So fewer and fewer kids learned to drive manuals.  In the 1970s, fire departments noticed that younger firefighters had trouble driving fire engines, almost all of which had manual transmissions. It got to the point that they were destroying clutches and transmissions. So more and more departments ordered automatics.  It became harder and harder to find an engine, a ladder truck, tanker or rescue truck with manual shift.  Now, they all are automatics.

The problem is this: People who can drive a standard transmission are better truck drivers. They have a practical understanding of how power is applied to pick up the load and get a mass in motion and how energy has to be dissipated in some manner to bring the mass back to rest. In my opinion, somebody who cannot drive a manual transmission has no business at the wheel of a 30 ton ladder truck.

The first rescue truck I learned to drive had four manual speeds and two ranges. You had to understand it to drive it. (Off the subject: Whoever installed the air horn put the button in an odd place, so third-gear-high-range meant the air horn blew.) That truck was replaced with a single-range-five-speed manual. From then on, it has been automatics.

Cruise control is another example. Cruise is good for avoiding tickets by not creeping over in an acceptable speed.  It promotes fuel economy by reducing needless acceleration and braking.  On the other hand, it separates the driver from throttle inputs, separating him/her from involvement in the driving. The driver is less attentive and therefore less skillful.  An automobile at 70 mph has lots of  inertia.  If something bad happens, it happens fast and has a potential of bad effects.

The list goes on. Children today often cannot write cursive because they depend on keyboards. If somebody depends on a keyboard, he/she cannot use a manual typewriter because they have insufficient finger strength. For that matter, few people even have a manual typewriter. Hell, not a lot of people have seen one in person.  When people use calculators, they cannot do mathematics – even count change – in their heads. With GPS, people lose the ability and incentive to use maps or, God forbid, a magnetic compass. They even forget things like which direction the sun is in the evening.  They must depend on the little voice in the machine to send them left, right, left.  And off road?  Heresy!

We depend on magnetic stud finders rather than rapping on walls with our knuckles. We depend on laser range finders rather than looking and estimating that the green is 150 yards away. We use piezoelectric lighters rather than matches. (I won’t even go to flint & steel.)  The really lazy among us use voice recognition technology rather than keyboards.  (Um, like I do for the first draft of most of these Dispatches.)  We use backup cameras rather than mirrors, and Google research rather than knowing actually how to find information. We use Doppler radar rather than watching the sky ... And so forth.

Each time we have some new gadget, some human knowledge or skill is reduced or lost.

This is not a call to the Luddite life. The wonders which technology has wrought! 

A random example: Automobiles used to need a “break-in” period.  The engine and running gear had to rub together at speed so the parts would wear to the point that they fit. Little bits of metal would break off in the process, so for the first thousand miles, you had to hold your speed down and at the end of that you had to change all of the engine and running gear fluids. Now, the machine tools that make engines, etc., are computer-controlled and the tolerances right from the factory are close enough that the cars do not need a break in period.

Another example: The F-117 fighter-bomber cannot get off the ground and stay in the air without a computer controlling it. It is so non-aerodynamic that no human pilot can make enough fast and tiny control inputs to keep it flying. And it is one of the mainstays of United States air superiority.

But at some point, electrical power will fail and so will the backup power.  The franistan or the glominator in the computer will short out and die or, worse, give incorrect information.

When that happens, humans may take control - but only if they know how.

If we don’t know how, we have let the deus ex machina write for us a very sad epitaph.

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