Aircraft maker Boeing is struggling with a public relations disaster after two of its 737 jets crashed in a six-month period. The 737 Max is now grounded while investigators try to figure out exactly why the two planes dove and crashed, killing all on board.
The suspected culprit is “anti-stall” software in the 737 Max. Because the Max can stall and plummet when the nose gets too high, Boeing installed anti-stall software which forces the nose of the plane down. While this makes sense when a plane is really in danger of stalling, it looks like the software may have improperly forced the nose of the two planes down under normal conditions.
Worse yet, the pilots in the Ethopia crash knew about the Lion Air crash months earlier, and followed Boeing’s emergency procedures to disable the software. Tragically, they ran out of time, and their jet took a dive into the ground anyway.
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About 350 people were killed in the two crashes. It is horrendously frightening to think that so many were apparently killed because of a software glitch. It’s equally frightening to think the FAA and other regulators allowed the Max to fly without taking a harder look at the software for it. The FAA, which has enjoyed considerable prestige until now, may see its reputation suffer greatly.
What Does the 737 Max Teach Us About the Dangers of Driverless Cars?
The 737 Max story is certainly newsworthy. It’s more than that, however; it also offers some lessons about the technology for things like driverless cars.
We’ve posted previously about how the technology for driverless cars isn’t ready for the real world. However, there’s also an important difference between the two situations. In the driverless car examples we discussed, at least there was a possibility that the driver relied too heavily on autopilot instead of taking control of the vehicle. The Boeing 737 Max crashes raise a more worrisome scenario: rogue software actually overrides heroic efforts by an operator to bring a machine under control.
Thus, the 737 Max problem is even more chilling. It suggests that even the most attentive operator (along with passengers) could be placed in grave danger by lines of code which don’t work.
The notion that smart technology can deal with every danger is being revealed as folly. There are a virtually infinite number of situations and scenarios that an operator of a car or plane can face in the real world. No software, however cleverly written, can ever deal with them all. But that’s not the worst of it: we’re now seeing that software can fail in a known and predictable scenario too, as appears to be the case with the 737 Max.
Futurists are kidding themselves when they argue that advances in technology can engineer away all our safety problems. The Max crashes are a grim reminder that we are far from the day when we can rely on anything other than trained, attentive people to operate the machines which move us around.
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