Would a Computer-Driven Vehicle Make This Kind of Error?

(Photo: Loco2)

Reading about the horrific train crash in Spain that killed at least 80, and thinking back to the (rare) fatal airplane crash in San Francisco brought to mind the ride I took in a driverless car a few months back at Carnegie Mellon University. Many people still distrust a computer to get them from Point A to B. How long will it be before our thinking changes and we distrust humans to do the same? The train and plane crashes both appear to be due to human error, as are the vast majority of automobile crashes (which kill more than 1 million people worldwide each year).

I haven’t spent all that much time in Spain but one of the most striking observations from a recent visit was how hard it is to buy a train ticket from a machine. In many cases, you have to wait in (long) line for a human ticket-seller. Whenever I asked why, I was told this was simply done to protect jobs — an understandable, if unsatisfying, defense in a country with 27% unemployment.

It does make me wonder how much a country or culture with a strong sense of job protection will be resistant to technological changes purely on employment grounds, even if they might produce large gains for the greater good.

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  1. Jon says:

    Great thought. I’ve long assumed that automating jobs will be a net plus for society — society will be able to more efficiently allocate human resources. I also think that obsolete workers can learn new skills and reenter the workforce. But, I think a very interesting “hidden” side is will they? And by this I mean, how much of a fight will they put up? Why do they want to hold on to these jobs so bad? Highway toll workers may be a great example.

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    • J1 says:

      Check out toll roads in Texas – they’ve done away not only with toll takers, but even with machines your can toss coins into. They take a photo of your plate and bill you. It’s an interesting extension of the principle discussed here. Not only has technology made people obsolete; it’s done the same thing to machines with moving parts.

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    • Eric says:

      When was the last time you were in Spain? 1990? Buying train tickets is a hell of a lot smoother in Spain than in the US these days. Machines at every station, little wait, electronic tickets. I think it’s time the author took a trip back before talking nonsense.

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  2. Karen says:

    Would it not be humans writing the code that make the computers run?

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  3. makus says:

    Dear Stephen:

    I don’t where have you been, but can find automatic machines nearly on every station in Spanish Metropolitan and Railways Stations.

    In this link you can see image attached: http://ccaa.elpais.com/ccaa/2012/01/02/catalunya/1325504787_263068.html

    You don’t know how many crashes and deaths could provoque Computer driven transport, as far as there are no statistics because they nearly don’t exist.

    Have found some Aribus auto landing tests here on Youtube and not very promising: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bzD4tIvPHwE

    This small article shows how little you know about Spanish advanced technological
    high speed railway systems that are implemmented worldwide, incluiding USA.

    I honestly think it’s too soon to make those conclusions. High Railway speed trains are automatized but human assisted , the crashed train was not a high speed train.
    There were automatic warning signals, two to be more precise. But we don’t know yet why the driver didn’t slow speed.


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    • Krist says:

      I was in Spain a few months ago. The ticket vending machines would only sell tickets for trains that called at the station they were installed at. Buying a ticket for a destination that involved a change was not possible.
      This is bit symptomatic for the railways in Spain. The trains are modern. The railway appears to be run as it was still 1950. Just go on http://www.renfe.es and find out how to get from A to B with A and B some small towns on opposite ends of the country.

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    • Alex says:

      I think you are being over critical. The Spain example is in no means an attack on Spanish infrastructure but just a good example of how technology can (potentially) take away human jobs.

      It is a thought experiment… no need to be so critical

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  4. Ivan EdlM says:

    You must have spent time at the wrong train station. All but the smallest provincial train stations are equipped with automatic ticket-sellers accepting cash or credit. Same goes for the subways in Madrid, Barcelona or Bilbao. Some automatic tellers are starting to accept mobile payment systems. Not to mention you can purchase your tickets online and print them at home, or print them precisely at those automatic ticket-sellers at major stations.

    That is not to dispute your correct assertion that the country has a strong sense of job protection. It just so happens that the transportation sector in Spain is actually one of the most advanced in the world, after having invested very heavily in state-of-the-art high-speed trains, railways, airports, subways and highways.

    And yes – human errors do take place, to tragic consequences. But humans also often come to the rescue where machines can’t, as we have witnessed this time with both civilian and professional first-responders. And other times they take decisions machines simply can’t. Remember Capt. Sullenberger?

    Best regards from Spain. I’d love to show you around next time you visit!

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    • markus says:

      Hi Ivan:

      Coudn’t say it better…

      Thank you


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    • Mike B says:

      Remember the Washington DC Metro accident where the automated system lost track of the trains and sent one hurtling into another at full speed killing 20 people. That and Air France Flight 447 show what can happen when human operators are lulled into a sense of complacency by automation. In the case of Flight 447 as soon as the autopilot turned off due to malfunctioning speed sensors the crew didn’t have a clue what to do.

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      • Buckley says:

        Twenty dead from the DC Metro collision? Try eight.

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      • Mike B says:

        Either way fully automated systems like Metro were set as the gold standard in safety due to human operators not making safety critical decisions.

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      • Robert Kiser says:

        Computerized control of complex automated systems like airport traffic control systems or entire train systems will always be problematic; what is much easier is automated control of individual cars, trains, or planes. The problems involved are simpler by orders of magnitude, and a very small number of rules (and thus a very small amount of code) can result in surprisingly intelligent behavior. An added benefit is that automated vehicles can coexist with manually-operated ones, so implementation is easier.

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  5. Scott says:

    You can see similar in the Metro New York area.

    LIRR and Metro-North both have plentiful ticket takers and conductors on the trains, rather than installing ticket gates and automated processes.

    The decisions to continue in this fashion are based in no small part on the union and concerns for those jobs.

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  6. Allen says:

    I never use the automated check out at the supermarket since I always end up needing a clerk and since there is one clerk for 6 checkout machines the wait is as long or longer than the regular check out line. As to planes, trains and automobiles – one bad line of code will cause thousands of crashes where a operator will only cause 1. If you trust the code, when was the last time your computer or phone didn’t do what you expected? Want to try that on an LA freeway at rush hour?

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    • James says:

      I don’t use the automated checkout at the supermarket either, but it has nothing to do with whether I trust the machinery, or might need a human. It’s simply that I refuse to listen to a machine, especially one that has been programmed to use a snotty voice & manner that I would find unacceptable in a human checker.

      Which perhaps explains Dubner’s comment re how hard it is to buy tickets from a machine in Spain. I expect it isn’t because there are no machines, but because the machines are difficult and/or unpleasant to use. As when my local library branch replaced its older automated checkout machines with new touch-screen ones, which were so awkward to use (designed for dummies, basically) that there were lines for manual checkout.

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      • Caleb B says:

        Agreed. I hate auto checkout at the grocery store. It is about frustration more than time. A human cashier is (ussually) faster bc they do this all day long. I only use the machine once in a while, so I suck at using it. I’d rather hand it off to someone who is faster and better at it than me, even if it takes more time. Same reason why I don’t change my own oil.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        The only people regularly using manual checkout at my library are a couple of older men who also produce the same speech every time about how they are such important taxpayers that they deserve to be waited on hand and foot by a highly trained librarian. Other than them, the touchscreen system that’s been in place for more than five years seems to be pretty popular, and the librarians get to do more valuable things, like helping patrons find books that interest them.

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      • James says:

        It’s not (at my library branch), a case of manual vs automated system, but of old, easy to use automated system vs new, difficult to use* automated system that drove a lot of people back to the manual checkout. Management seems to have noticed: I visited last night, and the old machines are back!

        Same applies to automated supermarket checkouts: the machines need to be easy & pleasant to use, or people will not use them.

        *Just for example, all the instructions are in the form of (unintelligible, IMHO) animated pictures. Wouldn’t you think developers would understand that most library patrons can read?

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  7. J1 says:

    You don’t hear about accidents that didn’t happen.

    I don’t know about trains, but it’s not clear that removing human input would make flying any safer, and I’m pretty sure it would make it a lot less safe. Given the automation involved, an airline pilot’s job boils down to two things: 1.) to make the ATC system work and 2.) to get you back on the ground alive when the automation fails. If you’re in a driveless car, it can be designed with a fail-safe mode that has it coast to a stop when the automation quits. In a similar situation in an airplane, without human intervention you’re going to run into something at extremely high speed, and probably die.

    When contemplating giving computers complete control, the first question is “can this device be designed with a safe failure mode when the computer quits?” If the answer is no, a human operator is required.

    The ninth commenter at the at the airbus video link’s quote of Arthur C. Clarke is apt here. You should heed it’s warning.

    As to your final question, extremely.

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  8. MG says:

    This article raises good points and asks good questions. As a human factors engineer, I would like to point out that while human error is often cited for accidents, the root cause is poor human-machine/computer interaction. For example, engineers tend to automate the things that humans are good at while leaving them to perform tasks that they are not good at (e.g., monitoring tasks). That being said, automation is improving at a rapid rate and may be able to take over more tasks thus improving the safety. However, as one person mentioned, humans build the technology (write the code) so there will always be a accident. There is a theory that as technology increases in complexity, there are fewer small-scale accidents but there will be occasional large-scale accident as proved by the train crash and recent airline disasters.

    With respect to technological changes and job protection, the issue is in education. There is no doubt that technology will continue to replace humans. This is why we need to educate them so they can fill those jobs that robots/automation/artificial intelligence will not be able to replace – at least in the near future.

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    • Mike B says:

      This accident occurred at the boundary between one highly automated type of safety system and one less automated one. I would not be surprised if there is a human factors problem or an outright system failure involved with this.

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