Markkula Center for Applied Ethics - Better Choices

All About Ethics Blog

The Ethics of Autopilot

Center Assistant Director of Campus Ethics Brian Green wrote an op-ed for the San Jose Mercury News suggesting that in the wake of the Germanwings plane crash, it's time to consider giving more power to autopilot.  Green, who teaches Engineering Ethics, argues:

For decades airplanes have had autopilots to maintain control in mid-flight. And now everything about flight -- from takeoff to landing -- could be automated if we wanted it to be. We haven't taken that route because it changes pilots into system operators; they become sophisticated monitors of a computer system, no longer pilots. This causes them to lose piloting skill, and if there were a real emergency they might be less able to solve it. Advertisement However, if our computers are now more reliable than our pilots, perhaps it's time to start thinking about making a shift. Already some cars have accident-avoidance systems. Why not install similar systems on airplanes as well? If the pilot has for some reason headed the airplane for the ground, simply override the pilot. 

At the very least, ethics would dictate that we need to examine this issue very carefully. We may well still decide that we cannot bear the risk of computer errors endangering planes in complex and unexpected ways. Or we may decide that if aircraft cannot be 100 percent safe, we would rather have problems due to human operator error than failed technology. But this is a conversation we need to have.

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