The US Navy is following the advice of TED talk-ers and technology Cassandras: It’s taking a step away from screens.
Aarian Marshall covers autonomous vehicles, transportation policy, and urban planning for WIRED.
Last week, the Naval Sea Systems Command said it would begin converting the touchscreen systems that help control destroyers back to physical throttles. The decision comes after two investigations determined that the sailors who pilot destroyers did not fully understand how the touchscreen-driven integrated bridge and navigation system worked. The investigations—by the US Fleet Forces Command and the National Transportation Safety Board—found that flawed systems, and their faulty use by Navy watch standers, were partly responsible for a 2017 collision between the destroyer USS John McCain and a container ship that killed 10 sailors.
The problems with the touchscreens seem to result from a deadly triumvirate: bad design, bad testing, and bad training. The USFFC review on the John McCain incident, completed in the months immediately following the crash, found that the ship’s helm system had recently been upgraded, but that those who stood watch had not been explicitly trained to use it. It found that the way the controls were arranged on the touchscreen, and even its color scheme, “were inconsistent with best practices in industry for safety critical control panels.” In fact, it found those using the helm system often used the trackball and button backups instead of the touchscreen.
The NTSB report, which was released earlier this month, pointed to the same interface flaws, and also highlighted issues with the system’s backup manual mode, which some commanding officers preferred for docking and undocking maneuvers. The federal safety investigators found that when the system was in computer-assisted manual mode, watch standers behind other stations could unintentionally and unilaterally take over steering control.