Complex Made Simple

Can we really rely on the software that runs our cars and planes? Who protects us when it fails?

Whose duty is it to protect the consumer from transport vehicles plagued by faulty software, and can we rely on this software in the first place?

2018 saw software-related vehicle recalls increase more than sevenfold in the US, from 2.5 million to 18 million The aviation sector has also been hit by glitching software, with disastrous results “We don’t have to have 300-plus people die every time to find out that something is unreliable”

As our means of transport become ever more integrated into the Digital Age, we are seeing first-hand the risks that come with relying on virtual tech and systems.

Why is faulty software causing this many issues, and whose responsibility is it to protect the consumer? 

Faulty software the lead cause behind car recalls

In decades past, when an engineer or an inventor would create a new product, be it an engine, an electric contraption, or what have you, solid real-life components would be involved. Inventors were able to test the fidelity of physical components under different circumstances and conditions. 

Today, with the advent of the digital age, a lot of ‘virtual’ components are involved in the manufacture of a product, such as a car. For example, no longer is a car simply a chassis holding the bare essentials needed to transport people – it’s more than just a motor and some wheels.

“Vehicles overall have become quite feature-rich. There is an increasing share of electronic and safety parts, which sometimes don’t behave [as] one would expect in real-life driving conditions,” said Shamsher Dewan, Vice President – Corporate Ratings, ICRA, as reported by Economic Times India.

Today, cars are equipped with all sorts of software that utilize sensors and other tech to monitor, analyze and adjust virtual and real-world factors of the driving experience. At this point in vehicle development, it’s almost impossible to account for every little bit of contingency and code that could go wrong with a program. While simulations certainly do help the search for potential issues in fabricated test scenarios, the fact remains that there have been unprecedented reports of faulty software with vehicles that have often just left the manufacturing line. 

2018 saw vehicle recalls double in India, with faulty software as the major cause. 

In the US, it was much worse.

The 3rd “State of Recalls” report, conducted by recall solutions firm Recall Masters, found that more than 32.7 million affected vehicles in the United States were accounted for in recalls mandated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in the 2018 calendar year.

“The rise in recalls for 2018 from 2017 came predominantly from software/electronics recalls, which overcame airbag recalls for the first time,” Recall Masters said. “As vehicles become more like computers than machines, recalls in the software/electronics category may be the next recall crisis on the horizon. For 2018, software/electronics recalls accounted for [an] estimated 102 total campaigns affecting almost 18 million vehicles, a staggering jump from the estimated 2.5 million vehicles affected in 2017.”

McKinsey also writes on the issue: “While automakers and suppliers have made giant strides in reducing product and process variability, vehicles’ digital features and functional complexity have exploded, forcing the industry to play catch-up with proliferating software and electronics problems.”

Beyond car recalls, and with more future-oriented tech such as autopilot, problems abound too. 

Autopilot software in self-driving cars (namely Tesla) has already caused several casualties in the efforts of innovating travel. 

Faulty software is plaguing air transport as well

Cars have not been the only venue of troublesome software. Planes have had their share of issues with programming too, and with tragic results. 

Perhaps the most well-known software-triggered plane crashes in recent memory have been the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes that occurred in October of 2018 and March of 2019, respectively. The crashes caused the loss of 346 lives, and at the centre of these 2 incidents was one culprit: the Boeing 737 MAX.

Historically a budget, best-seller plane for the American manufacturer, it has been grounded ever since the second crash, when a definitive fault was found with the plane MCAS system. The Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS for short, helped tip down the jet’s nose when needed. 

“When Boeing set out to develop the 737 MAX, engineers had to find a way to fit a much larger and more fuel-efficient engine under the wing of the single-aisle jet’s notoriously low-riding landing gear,” aviation site The Air Current explains. By reworking some of the plane’s internals, the manufacturer was able to make a 14% improvement in fuel consumption. 

However, these inner tweaks led to an issue in how the jet handled in certain situations. The jet was now more inclined to pitch upwards.

To combat this, Boeing introduced MCAS to help pitch the plane downwards and balance its trajectory. The issue arose, then, when MCAS kicked in without cause, leading the two doomed planes to pitch downwards when uncalled for. This is what media reports state caused the two crashes. To make matters worse, many pilots of the 737 MAX were unaware of this new system.

A fix for the MCAS was supposedly developed by Boeing but has yet to be submitted to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for approval. 

However, the MCAS glitch seems to be only one of many newly emerging issues with the plane. 

“A new problem with the [737 MAX]’s microprocessors emerged in late June, which will take months to fix,” the Economist reported. “And on July 5th, European aviation regulators revealed another new software fault.”

One has to ask: If the plane was this riddled with problems, how was it allowed to be airworthy in the first place?

Regulators are often acting after the disaster, not before it

The MCAS issue is very much similar to the car recall situation, except on a much greater scale. One of the standout points here is that it seems the tech was developed at a much faster rate than safety checks and regulations were able to keep up with, which seems to be a recurring theme in the Fourth Industrial Revolution ongoing today.   

If tomorrow regulators were to inspect other jets in service as rigorously as they are examining the 737 MAX right now, it’s very possible they would find some issues too. No matter the field, regulators are often a few steps back in the world of ever-changing technology, playing catch-up – it’s only when tragedy strikes that leading bodies take more immediate action, even though this shouldn’t be the case.

“We don’t have to have 300-plus people die every time to find out that something is unreliable” – a shareholder shared some biting criticism at Boeing’s first annual meeting after the crashes, as reported by The New York Times.

In an unrelated digression, consider the Western governments’ move to set distinct boundaries for user privacy in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal (think back to the Mark Zuckerberg hearings and the data privacy paranoia that followed). It’s because of a string of data breaches that we finally witnessed the birth of regulation such as the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) in Europe, which is meant to protect EU citizens’ privacy and data.

At the end of the day, it’s the responsibility of government organizations and regulators to ensure that all vehicles used to transport their citizens are travel-worthy – before disaster strikes. As tech and software continue to develop at unmeasurable rates, these organizations need to find ways to keep tabs on these firms to ensure their products are safe before they hit the market.