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.

Reverting the touchscreen systems back to physical throttles will take 18 to 24 months, according to US Naval Institute News.

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.

A drawing of the Integrated Bridge and Navigation System onboard the USS John McCain when it collided with a tanker in 2017.

National Transportation Safety Board

The reports also cited other factors that contributed to the crash of the USS John McCain, and a spate of other crash incidents that occurred in the western Pacific in 2017: poor operational oversight by the Navy, poor oversight by the leadership of the ships, and also fatigue, which increased the likelihood of crew mistakes.

Frustrations with arguably over-complicated digital systems has been rampant across the Navy, according to internal fleet surveys. “We got away from the physical throttles, and that was probably the number one feedback from the fleet. They said, ‘Just give us the throttles that we can use,’” program executive officer for ships Rear Admiral Bill Galinis said in an address earlier this month.

The complaints are nothing new, according to Weston Ross, a postdoctoral researcher studying mechanical engineering at Duke University, who has looked at the design of system on US Navy aircraft carriers. Navy personnel “tend to be a group of people that like low-level technology because it works all the time,” he says.

In an email, Naval Sea Systems Command spokesperson Colleen O’Rourke said the Navy is “driving toward commonality across bridge configurations on surface ships,” which would also make it easier for personnel to handle the systems, and for the Navy to train them.

These issues—safety-critical digital systems that don’t quite line up with their users’ preferences and needs, or ones that their users aren’t equipped to use—pop up often when humans must interact with machines. Boeing, for example, took pains in the 1990s to make sure that the controls in its first software-based “fly-by-wire” system mimicked what pilots had used when the physical yokes and buttons controlled each flight. But pilots complained that Boeing hadn’t warned them about the existence of a software system it built to compensate for a design change in the 737 MAX, the aircraft involved in two fatal crashes that has been grounded since March.

After a person hired to sit in a car and monitor its self-driving tech failed to prevent a fatal collision between her self-driving Uber test vehicle and an Arizona pedestrian, engineers wondered whether that system—which demanded the humans behind the wheel perform the monotonous task of watching miles of road go by and simultaneously be prepared to wrest control of the wheel if something went terribly wrong—was ill-conceived.

Still, it’s rare for anyone, much less the US Navy, to totally scrap a digital system or touchscreen—even if they discover the machine is working less with its humans than on them. Sometimes, when lives are on the line, it seems like the professionals would rather have their hands on the real thing.


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