Many have a fear of flying. But with the recent crashes surrounding Boeing's 737 Max Airliner, even the most veteran flyer is questioning the safety of the plane. Yet as more information becomes available regarding the doomed Ethiopian flight, issues regarding automation seem to be front and center in the debate. One has to question whether we will learn from the loss of life in this situation or as time progresses and we switch to computers doing more complex tasks for us, will a calculated loss of life due to computer error become an acceptable by-product of our life becoming "easier."
The idea behind having computers think for us is nothing new. Who has not asked Siri for assistance in spelling a word or getting movie times? Of course, if Siri misspells "Ethiopian" or if I am late taking my kids to see the latest superhero flick, no one is going to lose their life over the miscalculation. However, when computers start thinking for us in more complex scenarios, the stakes become significantly higher.
Take for instance the case of Uber's self driving car killing a pedestrian in March of 2018. On March 18, 2018, a Volvo sport utility vehicle, one of several self-driving vehicles that Uber was testing at the time, was traveling about forty miles per hour when it hit Elaine Herzberg, a forty-nine year old woman, as she was walking her bicycle across the street at night. This one incident caused Uber to abandon self-driving cars for the time being despite a large financial investment into the project. But for Uber the price of one life was too high1.
The policy behind companies including loss of life into their calculations in determining profit is found in many industries. Look back at the litigation surrounding Goodyear Tire Company and Ford Motors. Back in the 2000's, Ford Explorers with certain Goodyear tires were getting into accidents at an alarming rate. The issue had to do with a manufacture defect that some believed both Ford and the tire maker knew. However, the amount of money the companies would pay in lawsuit damages was calculated in the decision to do a recall and fix the issue. The bottom line is it would cost the company too much to remedy the problem so they took their chances in court2.
Together the Ethiopian Flight and the Lion Air Flight, which suffered the same issue, had a combined total of three-hundred-forty-six people die when the two planes crashed. Yet before the plane's grounding, there were approximately 8,600 737 max flights per week. Averaging 150 people on each flight, this means 1,290,000 (over one million people) flew in these planes per week. Assuming that both planes crashed in the same week, when in fact the two plane crashes were several moths apart, this would equate to a loss of life rate of .03%3.
With the entire world basically grounding these flights, Boeing has had no choice but to address the issue. One can hope that the urgency to remedy the situation comes from the desire to save lives and not to make money. But as our lives become more automated, these type of calculations will become even more prevalent in every day life.
-By Marc Consalo, Director of the Center for Law and Policy