Roger McKinlay on Navigation

The personal musings of the Immediate Past President of the Royal Institute of Navigation


June 2016

Anything would be better than what we’ve currently got


“Why don’t we just try something.  Anything would be better than what we’ve currently got”.

At a recent meeting on intelligent mobility some of the – dare I say it – younger members of the audience were becoming frustrated at the lack of progress with driver-less cars.  One heckled, “Why don’t we just try something.  Anything would be better than what we’ve currently got”.

If only it were true.  Replacing the current boring human-driver system with a better one will be a challenge.  The number of road deaths in the UK is lower than it was when records began in 1926.  The rate – deaths per billion miles of journey – has almost dropped off the bottom of the page.

If one looks at the old-fashioned terrestrial aids used in air navigation it is clear that nothing stifles progress more than being in the dull land of the “good enough”.  It’s not that no one wants to move on. It’s simply the case that these old fashioned systems have dropped off the fix-it list.  In-flight loss of control and the mental health of pilots are causing concern; getting lost is not.

The internet, Twitter and the motorized tie rack (with built-in LED light) were not invented to solve any known problems but they have changed our lives.

But how dull!  Surely innovation is not about fixing problems but about having a vision? The internet, Twitter and the motorized tie rack (with built-in LED light) were not invented to solve any known problems but they have changed our lives.

Two factors need to be taken in to consideration.  One is complexity.  Complex systems respond to even the smallest changes in surprising and unforeseen ways.  The second is the observation that “optimal is rarely beautiful”.  Unlike simple products, concepts or ideas, systems that have evolved and been proven over time work much better than they look.  They are deceptive.

Put the two together and you have all the makings of a rift.  The experts know that the ugly old system – warts and all – is actually pretty good.  It just doesn’t look it.  Years of clearing the fix-it list have done their job.

Idealists, perfections and the plain ignorant, on the other hand, see such systems as having no legitimacy.  These are things that have arisen by chance rather than design.  In their opinion, a half-wit could do a better job.

The moral of the story: before you chuck out a well-established system, no matter how ugly, make sure you have at least one half-wit to work on the replacement.


Autonomous Vehicles and the Benny Hill Theme

saxI was interested to read of the recent incident of an ambulance being unable to find the London Olympic velodrome.  Actually, three ambulances failed to find the velodrome because “their GPSs had not been updated”.  The first one to reach the scene unfortunately arrived too late.  A tragic story.

In a pre-GPS-age I enjoyed a bird’s eye view of a fire engine pulling up outside my flat and several firemen sprinting to the front door.   They soon ran out again, huddled round a map, leaped back in to the engine, executed a U-turn and disappeared.  Maybe my memory is playing tricks on me but the whole incident appeared to happen at twice normal speed to the sound track of “Yackety Sax”, the Benny Hill theme.

It wouldn’t happen nowadays.  Nowadays the crew would have hosed down my flat anyway because it’s what GPS says.  (“There’s more to a fire than smoke and flames guv.”)  And then the other two fire engines would have rocked up and done likewise.

A few people should sit up and take notice.  One – I hope – is the DfT speaker at a recent conference who announced that as the majority of road accidents are caused by human error, the only way to make roads safer is to make vehicles driverless.  If only it were that simple.

A road full of driverless cars is not a humanless system – it’s just a driverless system.  The humans who are left can potentially do far more damage than any one car driver, or ambulance driver for that matter. And they will do damage if they are not even aware they have new responsibilities.

For every automating gadget that removes a person or a function, some new roles and responsibilities must be added to someone else’s job description.  It’s a sort of Newton’s Third Law.

One is tempted to say that a job such as “GPS Update Manager” should be recognised as being safety critical but this would be plain daft.  GPS is not that reliable anyway.  A better “new job” would be training a generation of ambulance drivers who have never known life without GPS to map read.  The velodrome incident was not a failure brought about by GPS, but by the societal changes that GPS has brought about.

I’m off to a smart transport conference later in the month.  It will be great.   And when I get frustrated by claims such as “the technology exists – it’s just a matter of overcoming the bureaucracy” I’ll close my eyes and let the rising strains of Yakety Sax drown out the speaker.

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