Humans struggle to cope when automation fails

ONE WAY to tell who made the aircraft you are boarding is to steal a glimpse of the cockpit. A traditional control yoke in front of the pilots suggests a Boeing; a joystick beside each seat, an Airbus. Pilots argue about which system is better; neither is considered safer than the other. Each exemplifies a different approach to a problem that manufacturers of not just aircraft but also cars, trains and ships must grapple with as long as human operators handle increasingly automated machines.

The challenge of what engineers call the “human-machine interface” has tragically gained attention after the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 on March 10th. Eyewitnesses reported that shortly after departing Addis Ababa, the aircraft climbed and dived repeatedly. Similarities were drawn with a fatal crash in Indonesia in October last year. That time, the pilots of a Lion Air MAX 8 struggled, also soon after take-off, with an automated safety system that erroneously tried to prevent the aircraft from stalling by lowering its nose.

Although authorities around the world have grounded the model, Boeing insists that it is airworthy. The company is updating the MAX’s automated flight-control software to make it easier for pilots to assume manual control. Boeing and Airbus both pack their planes with computers that do most...



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