The Shadow of the Human Factor

In a powerful explanation that was dramatized in the movie “Sully,” US Airways pilot Chesley (Sully) Sullenberger clarified vividly the significance of the “human factor” in our digital age.

After saving 155 people by landing his disabled Airbus A320 in the Hudson River in January 2009, Sully became a national hero. But soon after, he was called on the carpet by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), whose members had seen computer simulations that challenged the pilot’s judgment. The simulations suggested that Sullenberger would have had time, after bird strikes had killed both engines, to coast into a much safer emergency landing at one of two nearby airports.

When I watched the film, the scene that impressed me more than the remarkable river landing and the rescue effort was the “courtroom” clash between Sullenberger and the NTSB. In his testimony, Sullenberger explained the human factor, as intelligently and intelligibly as anyone has, in the management of “intuitive” technology.

When I watched the film, the scene that impressed me more than the remarkable river landing and the rescue effort was the “courtroom” clash between Sullenberger and the NTSB. In his testimony, Sullenberger explained the human factor, as intelligently and intelligibly as anyone has, in the management of “intuitive” technology.

Sully prevailed upon his judges to add 15 to 20 seconds of human reaction time to the simulation, because those 15 to 20 seconds are the span necessary for even the most experienced operator — Sullenberger had been a commercial pilot for 29 years — to recognize an emergency, seize control, and respond effectively. In the revised simulations, Sully’s crippled aircraft crashed short of the runway every time. He proved not only the fallibility of the human factor, but its resourcefulness — because his response was to land, successfully, in the Hudson River.

The human factor was, surprisingly, a prominent theme at the recent AutoSens Conference in Brussels. Since its inauguration, this gathering has focused on the emergence of autonomous vehicles (AVs) as the next big thing for carmakers and their newfound bedfellows in high technology.

But this year, after a series of mishaps and fatal accidents involving cars running on “autopilot,” safety rose to the top of the AutoSens agenda. If AV technology fails to achieve a level of road safety far in excess of the human factor — which kills 30,000 people every year — it has faint hope of public acceptance. For reasons fathomable only to psychologists, people will tolerate night-time highways populated by drunk drivers and reckless teenagers, but can’t stand the prospect of being killed on the road by a robot.

Robert Stead, organizer of the AutoSens Conference in Brussels, urged conferees not to be discouraged — “the dread trough of disillusion” — by the mounting safety concerns associated with autonomous vehicles. Technology, he assured his audience, will find a way. (Image: David Benjamin)

Picture Ripley, early in “Aliens,” telling Bishop, the “artificial person,” to stay the hell away from her. She’s expressing an instinctive mistrust of machines that every one of us (with the possible exception of Elon Musk) understands.

In AV technology, the human factor is intrinsic to Level 3 vehicles, requiring a handoff of the controls to a human “safety driver” when an emergency suddenly appears that’s too hard for the robotic system to handle. Research proves that these handoffs rarely work — because normal drivers, faced with a crisis, aren’t as quick on the draw as was Chesley Sullenberger when a flock of birds killed his engines. However, another human factor, not much discussed in Brussels, caught my notice (and hardly anyone else’s) earlier last month.

Draw a line on a map of the United States through Lake Michigan, bending due east just south of Chicago, creating a northeasterly quadrant that separates it from the rest of America. This is what might be called “sedan country” (or “Priusland,” or Volvonia”), the last outpost of the sedate family sedan. Lawrence Ulrich, in The New York Times, reported that “most Detroit automakers are ridding their lineups of sedans and diverting investment to SUVs and crossovers, not to mention electric vehicles and self-driving tech.”

Good idea, Lawrence. Let’s not mention EVs and AVs. Let’s just talk about the human factor of people — except perhaps in a shrinking enclave of East Coast “elites” — who have yet to hear about a future in which non-guzzlers are so loaded with mandatory “safety features” that a “driver” won’t be allowed to change lanes without computer permission, and when “putting the pedal to the metal” will be mere memory because onboard sensors will self-calibrate to the exact speed limit posted on every road. Picture a million cars, all going 55 mph side-by-side, bumper-to-bumper, safe as a baby carriage, on U.S. Interstate-90. Sort of makes your blood run cold. This is my human factor. This is why Detroit, which has been both reading and dictating the human response to automotive technology since Henry Ford started rolling out Model Ts, is mothballing its sensible sedans and doubling down on chariots of steel. Tall seats, huge grilles, combat bumpers, hemispherical combustion, and enough seating to hold an entire Little League team.

Automakers are betting the future on a sort of poindexterous faith that Americans harbor a secret hankering for cocoon-safe, battery-powered surreys that do all the driving — in single-file, cookie-cutter V2V convoys — for them.

Thing is, I grew up not far from Detroit, west of Lake Michigan and damn close to the Harley-Davidson factory in Milwaukee. I privately favor EVs and advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS). I don’t invest my manhood in my ride. But I don’t represent a majority. I’ve known since before puberty that you face serious resistance — and, possibly, physical harm — if you try to take from the callused hands of American patriots the three most potent symbols of their God-given personal autonomy:

  • Their guns.
  • Their steering wheels.
  • The open road.

If we could wean our neighbors away from these symbols of manhood and identity, we could save, literally, millions of lives and a universe of human anguish. But that ain’t gonna happen. Even George Jetson still got to steer. Until the auto industry, from Detroit to Toyota City, comes to terms with this stubborn kink in the human psyche, the advent of a self-driven utopia will continue to simmer on a really expensive back burner. ■