PH Blog


Monday 19th December 2011


Can you really trust the black boxes?

Strange the kind of stuff people put up on Facebook. Like this scary but fascinating report into what happened on the Air France flight that plunged, apparently mysteriously, into the Pacific.

Having recovered the black boxes the full truth of what happened makes fascinating - and horrifying - reading. Especially if you ever worry about how much control we hand over to the machines.

Coming at you under radar guidance...
Coming at you under radar guidance...
It seems the pilots had so much belief in the idea that the Airbus A330 wouldn't let itself crash that they ignored ever more strident warnings and eventually stalled. They were so convinced by the manual's assurances that the Airbus simply wouldn't let itself stall they ignored the warnings, thinking there must be a fault with the instruments. That blind trust ultimately led to the deaths of 228 people.

And there's a danger cars are going the same way too. Take the E63 AMG test car we've just handed back for example. Though it seems utterly counter intuitive you can cruise in stop-start traffic with your feet off the pedals under radar automatic pilot that'll even bring you to a halt when the car in front stops. Brush the throttle and it'll move off again, maintaining an electronically metered distance whatever the speed. These systems have been round a while but we're breeding a generation of drivers who, eventually, might never have had to make these kind of decisions themselves. As Riggers has reported this week, a new patent marks the next step to cars that can drive themselves. But if, as in Flight 447, the computers go a bit screwy where does that leave them?

So who's actually in control?
So who's actually in control?
Blind trust in electronics can bite and it's actually had me off the road too, leaning against the mid-way 'show-off' ESP setting on a wet slip road. I was counting on a nice electronically enhanced - and recovered - slide. But the computers said no and off I went. Dumb, but previous experience said it'd have given me a quick half a turn of opposite lock and then tidied things up for me. When it didn't I was suddenly on my own and out of talent. I'd been lulled into a false sense of security that tricked me into thinking I could drive like that with impunity but, on my own, my skills weren't enough to recover the situation. A sobering moment indeed.

When they work these systems are incredible and mean a 500hp-plus rear-drive estate car with an aggressive limited-slip differential like the E63 is viable family transport even in the weather we've been having the last few days. A few years back that would have been considered ludicrous but now we take it for granted. And the E63 is a wonderful thing. But as Flight 447 proves it's sometimes worth trusting your instincts, as well as the black boxes.

Author: Dan Trent