Autonomous Cars: What the Airline Industry Learned About Automation From Air France 447

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On May 31, 2009, Air France Flight 447 plunged into the equatorial Atlantic, four hours and 15 minutes from takeoff in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and just four minutes and 20 seconds after the pilots encountered trouble. When it hit the water, it was moving forward at just 107 knots, but it was falling at a rate of 11,000 feet per minute. Nothing was wrong with the aircraft. The pilots had lost the skills to fly it.

That’s the conclusion of the article “The Human Factor” by William Langewiesche in the October, 2014 issue of Vanity Fair: That modern airline pilots have become so inured to automation that when things really go wrong, some of them aren’t able to fly the plane any longer.

As we step ever closer to automated automobiles, we need to be aware that our skills are being muted to the point where we won’t be able to drive the car out of situations that the car’s automated features aren’t equipped to handle.

Modern commercial aircraft are almost exclusively flown with the aid of automation. It came out of the 1970s, when researchers realized that while airline accidents had certainly been reduced since the treacherous early days of propeller aircraft of the 1950s and 1960s, the accidents that did occur were almost exclusively the fault of pilot error.

A study for NASA led by research psychologist John Lauber suggested that the pilots of that era were authoritarian captains from the World War II, Korea and Vietnam era who “brooked no interference from their subordinates.” Those captains were known as “Clipper Skippers,” named for the flying boats of the 1930s. Their ability to fly was never in question. What became apparent was that their internal communications skills and workload management skills were lacking.

Langewiesche points out that some pilots were natural team leaders, but others were despots whose crews crumbled under pressure. Due in part to Lauber’s development of much more egalitarian Crew Resource Management procedures, and the increasing availability of self-regulated aircraft engine, fuel, electronics and hydraulics systems, airlines began eliminating the Flight Engineer position and flying with a two-person cockpit. It meant that automation was beginning to take up the slack that the Flight Engineer was formerly responsible for. Planes got much safer, and much more efficient in the process.


But what happens when those intricate systems that keep an aircraft in the air fail, or are momentarily befuddled? That’s what happened on Air France Flight 447. At 35,000 feet, ice crystals had formed in the plane’s three air-pressure probes, causing the cockpit’s air speed indicators to drop out almost completely. According to Langewiesche,

the automatic throttles shifted modes, locking onto the current thrust, and the fly-by-wire control system reconfigured itself” from a fully automated mode to one that changed the nature of its roll control so that “in this one sense, the [Airbus] A330 now handled like a conventional airplane.

Langewiesche wrote, “The airplane was in control of the pilots, and if they had done nothing, they would’ve done all they needed to do.” But they did the opposite of nothing. The pilots wrestled for control of the aircraft for the next four minutes, ignoring the signals that the plane was providing. From the moment the pilots took control of the aircraft, they pointed the nose skyward at an attitude of 49.4 degrees until it simply couldn’t fly, and it simply dropped 35,000 feet out of the sky.


It’s interesting to note that much of the technology that made cars safer in the last two decades came directly from the airline industry. Antilock brakes and yaw sensors in modern cars trace their lineage straight to aircraft. The automated features available today — automatic braking, for example — are directly related to automated features in modern aircraft.

As a result of that technology, cars are exponentially safer than they were in 1968  when the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) instituted basic federal safety standards for all cars. Despite the fact that we travel nearly three trillion miles a year by car in the United States the rate of fatalities per 100 million miles has fallen from 5.19 in 1968 to just 1.13 in 2012.

But nearly 34,000 Americans still die every year in auto accidents and, similar to those 1970s studies of airline pilots, those crashes are almost exclusively due to driver error. If the technology exists to save that many people every year through automation, both the auto industry and regulatory agencies are bound to mandate that automation in some form.

There’s a lesson to be learned from Air France Flight 447, though. Following the crash — in which 216 passengers, nine flight attendants and three pilots lost their lives — experts called for a new emphasis on “basic aeronautical common sense.”

Americans sorely lack basic driving skills already. In most US states, if you’re over 18, driver training isn’t even mandatory. In Massachusetts, for example, you’re only required to take Driver’s Ed. if you’re between 16 and 18.  If you’re older, you can simply pass a driving test and you’re issued a driver’s license.

Regardless of age, in Germany, a driver’s license comes with between 25 and 45 hours of professional training, 12 hours of classroom training, night driving training, and an investment of about $2,000.

The elimination of training and the reliance on automation almost guarantees that drivers will be the victims of their own incompetence.

Delmer Fadden — former Chief Engineer of Avionics & Flight Deck for Boeing — noted “We say, ‘Well, I’m going to cover the 98 percent of situations I can predict, and the pilots will have to cover the 2 percent I can’t predict.’ This poses a significant problem. I’m going to have them do something only 2 percent of the time. Look at the burden that places on them. First they have to recognize that it’s time to intervene, when 98 percent of the time they’re not intervening. They they’re expected to handle the 2 percent we couldn’t predict.”

With the driver training we currently provide, what’s expected of a driver when the automated features in his car run into the 2 percent of situations the engineers never predicted?

Craig Fitzgerald

Craig Fitzgerald

Writer, editor, lousy guitar player, dad. Content Marketing and Publication Manager at