Friday, January 20, 2012

Wing Cracks and Cars That Go Zoom in the Night

Two items in the news caught my eye this week. And while both are getting relatively little attention while Americans focus on Newt Gingrich's "open marriage" scandal and the rest of the world wonders what really happened when that cruise ship ran aground in Italy, these other stories are significant.

In today's International Herald Tribune, Nicola  Clark reports on the new European airworthiness directive aimed at getting to the bottom of wing cracks discovered on two of nine super jumbo Airbus A380s. Eee gads! Think Airbus customers at Singapore, Emirates and Air France/KLM are biting their nails? Uh, yeah, because those are the airlines who've been told wing installation techniques on the airplanes in their fleet could be susceptible to this problem.

Airbus dismissals that the fractures are harmless, seem not to be carrying much weight with the safety authorities in Cologne, who wrote in the directive, "This condition, if not detected and corrected, could potentially affect the structural integrity of the aeroplane."

Other operators of the A380, Lufthansa and Qantas may feel they've dodged a bullet, and that's a term I've used more than once in writing about this particular model airplane. Need I even say, uncontained engine failure? Near disaster over Indonesia? Nope, these airlines can't be too comfy right now, especially as the directive concludes with the caveat that these visual inspections of wing rib feet are "an interim action." The investigation, as they say, is ongoing, "further mandatory actions might be considered."

Would that the investigation was still ongoing into the cause of unintended acceleration on Toyota cars in 2008 and 2009. Unfortunately, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has turned off the ignition, locked the car and walked away from further study.  But in a report by Bill Vlasic of The New York Times, we learn that the federal agency charged with insuring auto safety isn't up to the task of supervising or even understanding the risks associated with digitization. Hello?

In autos and in aviation, engineers are boldly going where we have not been before. And for years I've been fielding emails from electronics engineers convinced that electromagnetic interference, (yep, that would be Alec Baldwin's EMI) played a role in all those out-of-control Prius, RAV4s, Corollas that had drivers feeling like Keanu Reeves in a real-life version of the movie Speed.

Don't get off the exit ramp yet, I'm gonna bring this back to airplanes in a minute. 

Toyota was under pressure to address concerns that all those cases of unintended acceleration might have EMI interference as a factor. So credible were the people raising the issue that Toyota felt the need to have its engineer,  Kristin Tabar answer the charge in a video on the company website, and it hired the scientific consulting firm Exponent to do its own study.

What Vlasic's story points out, however, is that an independent review found the federal agency not competent to regulate automative electronics. Part of the problem could be the speed with which the auto industry is developing in terms of digitization. A number of recent events with flight software and cockpit systems interference leads me to believe these two industries are not too dissimilar when it comes to keeping up with and managing the risks of complicated fly-by or drive-by-wire technologies.

The argument often put forth by those who say EMI is a fantasy rather than a ghost, is that there is no evidence of problems with interference as the source. It its report, the National Academy of Sciences replies, "Some failures of software and other faults in electronics systems do not leave physical evidence of their occurrence, which can complicate assessment of the causes of unusual behaviors in the modern, electronics-intensive automobile."

Everyone who did not go on a wild ride in a Toyota may be sick to death of the subject just as many people are tired of the debate over whether portable electronic devices should be allowed on flights below ten-thousand feet. But Negroni predicts, this is not the last we are going to hear about wing cracks or crackling electrons. Nor should it be.

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