Embrace technology, but keep the safety net

Cruising a rocky coastline in my 17-foot “yacht,” we were suddenly swallowed by a fog bank. In those pre-GPS days you had only two choices. One was to stop and wait out the fog, hoping that some reckless soul wouldn’t run you over. The other was to proceed very slowly in what you hoped was the right direction. Sadly the second one assumed that we actually knew where we were.

One of my passengers was Dave, an actual tanker captain on vacation, and his solution was to “fire up the SatNav.” His tanker had this ginormous pre-GPS navigational system, and he figured I must have one too.

We waited, and the fog burned off. An irony was that, despite the presence of then state-of-the-art navigational gear, Captain Dave regularly drilled his tanker crew in celestial navigation. He liked the electronics, but wasn’t sure they’d work when he needed them. Maybe his telling me to engage SatNav was humor?

In 1991, Scandinavian Airlines flight 751 experienced surging in both engines. In this case it was caused by ice chunks, and the correct procedure was to reduce thrust, which would clear the surge. When pilot Stefan Rasmussen pulled back the throttles, the engines went to full power and destroyed themselves. Captain Rasmussen managed to crash-land what had become a giant glider with no fatalities.

Subsequent investigation discovered that a new “safety” device installed on the MD-81 had engaged itself in mortal combat with Rasmussen. The Captain correctly thought that reducing power would help, but the airliner decided that throttling up was the way to go. The MD-81 won the argument… and crashed.

There are a couple of bus-relevant lessons here. Rasmussen was unaware of the system that wrecked his plane, because he’d never been trained on it. Another is that, even with constant improvement, technology isn’t ready to replace human input. The voice on your dash may sound caring, but we all know of suicidal GPS’s that have tried to take their owners with them. Who’s to say other psychotic systems won’t turn on us?

My first bus boss taught that, in a pinch, do the thing that hurts the fewest people. Software doesn’t know, or care, about that.

Drivers who trust trained electrons to stay in their lane, maintain proper following distance and make turns at a reasonable speed, lose their feel for driving. What happens when systems fail, or don’t talk to each other respectfully? Or when drivers are assigned a coach with unfamiliar technology? These systems are evolving, and Darwin’s work is sometimes ugly.

Another concern is aging. Are these delicate sensors, software and connections going to live long and prosper… or die young?

We need to teach drivers how this “stuff” works, so when it inevitably hiccups, they react appropriately. They also need to know how to operate safely without it. We were a very safe industry for decades without ABS, ATC, ALS and a myriad other acronyms because experienced drivers developed a feel for their coach and environment. When acronyms supplement good driving skills they’re helpful, but if they supplant it, we’re gonna get hurt

Ever hear of the tightrope walker who went back and forth across a canyon carrying a 200-pound sack? After a couple of trips he asked spectators if they believed he could carry a 200-pound person across, and they all said “yes.” Then he asked for volunteers, and you guessed it….

I’ve seen that safety technology works, and believe it will continue to improve. Am I willing to trust it to transport me across an abyss without a net? Color me cowardly.

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