The human factor

The human factor

13 February 2012 by Chris Edwards

One of the pressures on carmakers today is for them to make their vehicles ever safer. Having deployed seatbelts, crumple zones and fuel tanks that can survive head-on impacts without springing a leak, the attention is shifting to how the car behaves before it smashes into something solid.

As there is not that much more that can be done with the driver - although global accident statistics do a good job of reinforcing the value of a comprehensive driving test - attention is naturally falling on the role that advanced electronics and software can play. But this is something that concerns automotive-safety engineers such as Roger Rivett of Jaguar Land-Rover who spoke at last week's Safety Critical Systems Symposium in Bristol.

Far from being the weak link in the chain, the human driver does a pretty good job of not crashing and probably a lot better than a computer left to its own devices. He noted that, despite leaving people in control of cars at high speed, motorways see comparatively few incidents.

"When it comes to autonomous vehicles, personally, I'm not keen on them. Resilient systems tend to have people in the loop," said Rivett. "People say the problem with the car is the nut behind the wheel. But when I drove here, there were patches of fog while we were inches from each other. Nothing was happening, however. Yet no-one was anybody special."

In his talk on safety culture, Allan Bain of the MoD made the point that serious accidents have a single cause, even though this is what often people believe is the case. Very often, a combination of factors have come together in an inopportune way that cause the cascade of events to lead to disaster instead of a nerve-wracking but otherwise benign near miss.

If you look at the accident reports for aviation disasters, it's often the pilots who are left when their electronics fail at a critical point -  and who fatefully make the wrong decision. In those cases that don't warrant an air accident report, the pilots typically use their experience to make what turn out to be the right choices in the face of a failure in the automatic systems.

"The question is:" Rivett asked. "Does technology makes the world a safer place? Technology works best when we use it to extend our capabilities. It works less well when we constrain them."

A self-driving car may sound attractive but, in reality, one that helps us drive better is probably the more likely and favourable choice.

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    Posted By: Chris Edwards @ 13 February 2012 09:56 PM     General  

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