In the Control Seat of Technology

I recently had the opportunity to drive one of the automobile industry’s most up to date vehicle offerings—complete with systems that gently apply force to the steering wheel to keep the car in the lane it’s established in, to maintain the car at a set distance from the vehicle in front of it, and to warn me when the “blind spot” is occupied by another car. It was at once a curious and disruptive experience: I was witnessing the gentle concession of simple driving tasks that I’d been practicing for 35 years being performed by technology that the car companies insist is better and safer than having those tasks left up to the driver.

As an experienced pilot of large, advanced aircraft with a sound appreciation for the human/machine interface, the experience was surprisingly discomforting. I found myself thinking about a variety of issues related to technology and human performance for a few days after the experience. Overall, I asked, would this technology make my life and those around me safer? Would it somehow translate into some overall improvement to my quality of life? The test drive got me thinking.

After having a debate with myself and resolving to adapt to these latest advances in driving technology, the next question was, “what’s driving the pace of innovation in this mode of transportation, and why?” Is it safety (will these systems lower accident rates?), performance (will these systems combine to save me time, fuel, and money?), cost (will my insurance company give me a break on rates?), or is it all three? Or maybe this is as simple as the automotive industry adding more bells and whistles to their respective lineups in order to capture market share from competitors. In the end, I suspect it’s a little of everything, like many things in life.

Despite my experience and comfort level with operating advanced cockpit technology, the first time I felt the gentle tug on the steering wheel as I maneuvered the test-drive vehicle to another lane, I immediately found the disconnect switch for the Lane Keeping Assist mode and decided that before I used the technology in “live traffic” I’d first have to read the manual and practice using the system in good weather, during daytime, on a non-congested highway. In short, I’d have to organize my use of the technology and smoothly integrate that along with all of what I already know about safely operating a car.

I’m skeptical of the ongoing rush towards complicated driver-assist technology and other futuristic advances that a decade ago seemed remote and improbable in my lifetime. Not because I doubt the reliability of the technology, but rather the stubbornness of the driving public to apply a disciplined approach to interacting with the technology—in short, I’m concerned about the operator more than the technology. The automobile industry is going rapidly into autonomous and semi-autonomous control at a rate faster than the driving public can keep up with. It seems to me reminiscent of the first few years of rapid technology expansion in the cockpit. And as with the automobile industry, manufacturers of aircraft and the onboard systems that comprise their control are in a constant race to design and seek approval for new technology applications. In the meantime, the human operator remains the key component whose architecture, performance, and energy requirements are constant.

Last year—like the year before that and the year before that and quite possibly like this year too—over 32,000 people were killed in traffic accidents, and another 2 million more were hurt. Now, in addition to all of the safety advances of the past decades, there are more available systems to help me do my part to drive down that number. I’ve seen this problem before, it seems to me. And once again, I’ll be required to study the technology, and how it’s installation in the case of my specific vehicle has been done. After that, I’ll have to practice it to a proficient level before implementing it in the appropriate circumstances, during the wide variety of situations that I find myself operating the vehicle in.

Think about it.

Until our next post, fly safe, and always, fly first.

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