The ongoing controversy surrounding Boeing’s 737 Max 8 airliner should serve as a cautionary tale—not just for those in aviation, but for the entire transportation safety community. Though plane (and other transportation) crashes are an unfortunate reality, the recent Boeing disasters were unique. Instead of faulty mechanics, pilot error or foul weather, in these cases the culprit was software automation.
Onboard the 737 Max 8 was an advanced automated system meant to account for aerodynamic differences between the 737 Max 8 and its predecessors. Unknown to most pilots, this software adjusted the plane’s bearings based on sensor data in accordance with preset rules. Because the software wrested control from human pilots, isolated system errors could spiral out of control. And unfortunately, they did. The potential for similar tragedies is not confined to the skies. Any automated transportation system can introduce similar risks.