A Murky Future for Self-Driving Cars

Feet-first into fire! This short essay was written in response to the 2016 Report of the One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100) for CS 343H, Artificial Intelligence Honors.

Although I am ostensibly a student of computer science, I am also an urban studies minor, transportation geek, and public transit advocate. Thus, the One Hundred Year Study is of special interest to me, and its analysis of urban transportation doubly so. Continue reading “A Murky Future for Self-Driving Cars”

My Take: Malaysia Airlines Flight 370

For the past few days, the world has been captivated by the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Everyone is demanding answers, so naturally the media are eating up every possible lead. And most of them are false.

Plenty of these “media myths” are big exaggerations or just speculation; the networks are irresponsible to report them as fact. For example, we do not know for sure that the planed turned back in the direction of Malaysia. That assertion is based on preliminary radar data that is incomplete and possibly wrong.

Another widely dispersed myth is that the passengers are still reachable via their cell phones (voice rings and SMS delivery reports). This idea is simply ludicrous – if the phones were really connected to the cell towers, their location could be pinpointed by the rescue crews immediately. The rings and the delivery reports are the well-documented results of roaming phones and international calls.

The aviation enthusiasts at airliners.net have put together a wiki to compile all known information on the accident and refute some of these misunderstandings. If you are at all interested in the facts, you should check it out.

But a dishonest press is a topic for another day. The subject of this post is my personal theory on what happened to MH 370.

The plane

Flight 370 was operated by a Boeing 777-200ER twinjet airliner, which is one of the safest passenger aircraft in the industry. It has not had a fatal accident since its introduction in the mid-90s, with the exceptions of a fuel fire at Denver and last year’s crash of Asiana Airlines Flight 214 (which was caused by pilot error).

Could the crash have been caused by a mechanical failure or even a design flaw? It’s always a possibility, but it’s also extremely unlikely. After almost two decades of service, the 777 has proven a rock-solid workhorse. And nearly all aviation accidents have been caused by pilot error or botched maintenance.

If it was indeed a problem with the aircraft, an electrical problem of some kind would be most likely. A loss of the electrical system would explain the loss of the transponder and the lack of communication from the flight crew – at least, initially. They could always use battery-powered radios or satellite phones to raise ATC or home base. And an electrical problem alone should not have brought the plane down.

A fire related to the electrical system, however, is another story. The aircraft would be crippled and the crew would be disoriented. This is what happened to Swissair Flight 111 back in 1998. However, that flight crew had enough time to declare an emergency and attempt a diversion.

If the oil rig worker’s report of a jet going down in flames is true, the possibility of an electrical fire could have some substance. However, it is too early to say.

The pilots

The most likely cause of the plane’s loss is pilot error of some kind. The captain was very experienced and had thousands of hours on the 777, but the first officer was a 777 pilot-in-training. (This is a typical setup for Asian airlines – in fact, this is exactly how the Asiana crew operated.)

The accident has stark parallels with Air France Flight 447. That crash happened while the captain was taking a break and an inexperienced crew was in charge. When their airspeed indicator broke down, they panicked and inadvertently stalled the airplane – and then exhibited very poor airmanship by not actually recovering from the stall.

One can imagine a similar occurrence on our doomed aircraft. However, AF 447’s airspeed indicator broke down in the first place because of an ice storm. The weather for the Malaysian flight was crystal clear.

Another hypothetical situation – which is somewhat more controversial – is that one of the crew members intentionally brought down the aircraft down, either as a suicide or a complicated life insurance scam. This too has happened before – EgyptAir Flight 990 was brought down by a suicidal pilot. (To date, Egypt disputes the official conclusion of the American investigation, and insists the crash was caused by jammed flight controls. There is no substance to this – it seems Egyptian culture does not take kindly to the idea of suicide.)

I personally think the suicide theory deserves some serious investigation. It would perfectly explain the loss of the transponder and the lack of a distress call.

The passengers

Many media reports are pointing to two stolen passports used by Iranian individuals on the flight. Naturally, terrorism comes to mind. However, I think they are a red herring. It is quite common in this part of the world to travel with falsified documents. Furthermore, based on his Twitter feed, it appears that one of the Iranians was a legitimate immigrant using the passport to return to his mother in Germany.

So what about some other kind of terrorist attack? The lack of debris indicates that the airplane was not blown out of the sky in a huge explosion (which also discounts the missile strike theory). But a carefully placed bomb could simultaneously disrupt the electrical system and cripple the airliner only to the extent that it would enter a dive and crash reasonably intact.

Interpol doesn’t think a terrorist attack on this flight is likely, especially given the lack of a group claiming responsibility, but they cannot yet rule it out.

Conclusion

Why did Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanish into thin air? Ultimately, we don’t know. There are a myriad of possibilities, but to me, electrical fire, pilot suicide, and a medium-size terrorist bomb are the more plausible ones. Some of the conspiracy theories are really outlandish, like the idea that pirates hijacked the plane and flew it under the radar back to Somalia or it was struck by a missile launched by North Korea.

Ultimately, we need to look at what we know, as well as what we don’t know.

And remember, as far as getting from point A to point B is concerned, commercial airlines are the still the safest possible way.