Mike Buetow

For those who count on the electronics industry for big feats, it’s been a remarkable couple of years. The Mars Science Laboratory (which includes the better-known Curiosity rover) flew some 350 million miles before settling down on the Red Planet, where it continues to compile and beam new information back to we land-lovers on Earth. It’s a stunning engineering feat. And given the many millions of dollars spent to get there, thank goodness it succeeded.

In electronics design and production, failure is really not an option. The risk to reputation, not to mention the cost inherent in repairs or scrap, is overwhelming and has sunk many a company over the years.

And then there’s that little matter of loss of life to deal with.

Last month, a pair of potentially electronics-related stories made the headlines. The big one revolved around Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which – as of this writing – had been missing for almost two weeks. Initial reports had it crashing in the Gulf of Thailand. Then, as more satellite and related tracking info was revealed and studied, it appears the plane ended up several thousand miles west, in the Indian Ocean.

In the other, Toyota agreed to pay the US government an eye-opening $1.2 billion to settle an investigation into the Sudden Unintended Acceleration that plagued its vehicles in the 2008-2010 timeframe and allegedly were the cause of several deaths. 

As of this writing, it’s not known what led to the plane’s disappearance. Any number of hypotheses are being proposed, and we’re not going to add to the pile. (A moment of silence for the many engineers who were aboard the flight, including a reported 20 employees of Freescale Semiconductor.) That said, there is sure to be exceptional scrutiny of the on-board electronics, and whether the Boeing 777’s avionics contributed to the plane’s disappearance.

Meanwhile, while a US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation more or less exonerated Toyota’s electronics, some NASA scientists involved in the study privately called it a whitewash, arguing that tin whiskers found in at least one of the crashed vehicles were to blame.

Not to be trite, but for every disaster there’s an almost parallel success story.

After Air France 447 crashed en route from Brazil to France in 2009, for instance, robot submarines scouring more than 15,000 ft. below the Atlantic Ocean
located the aircraft’s flight recorders. That the plane was recovered, with its black box intact and working, was a miracle of perseverance and engineering.
And when the missing Malaysian Air plane is found, it will be with the help of advanced satellite and radar. When that happens, I suspect we will learn all sorts of lessons that will serve us down the road.

In the case of Air France 447, the Airbus A330-200 had on-board computers that automatically adjusted engine thrust to maintain air speed. This so-called autothrust doesn’t move. In other words, the pilots had to rely on a monitor, as opposed to conventional physical feedback, to learn the power setting. From
cockpit recordings and other data retrieved from the black box, we know that the computers blanked out, and, in total darkness, the pilots neither recognized nor correctly responded to the plane’s actual pitch. They had lost control of the plane, with tragic consequences.

This is relevant because we are likely within 20 years of mass-produced self-driving cars. At least four US states have already passed laws permitting on-road use of autonomous vehicles, though some still require a “driver” at the helm.  

In all likelihood, some sort of hybrid model of manual and autonomous will first gain market acceptance. But will drivers be comfortable steering and accelerating by program, without the tactile response of a wheel or pedal? When we step on the gas, we don’t actually look at the gas, of course, but the resistance of a gas or brake pedal is vital to that information feedback loop. We know the system is working because we can feel it working. Will the absence of such features also mean the loss of ever-so-needed nuances, such as tapping the brake to alert a trailing vehicle, that everyday driving requires?

There’s a fundamental difference when we turn over all our sensory response to a computer. Be they cars or planes, sometimes even machines need the human touch. Failure is not an option.

More achievers. Congratulations to our New Product Introduction and Service Excellence Award winners, which can be found on pages 9 and 10. From the proceeds of all the fine companies that entered, UP Media made a $4,000 donation to the Charles Hutchins Educational Grant, which is cosponsored by SMTA. Charles was on the editorial review board of the first magazine I worked on, and his courtesy and class were exceeded only by his commitment to excellence.

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