When Technology Fails, Who’s Responsible?
We’re creating new technologies without giving thought to the danger they could cause if they fail
Electricity is such an integral part of our everyday lives, we hardly even think of it as a technology. There’s a very good reason for that: Decades of careful regulation and planning across many industries and levels of government have worked together to make electricity pervasive, rarely prone to outage, and as safe as humanly possible. But somehow this approach is rarely followed in current technology development — even for products and services where failure can, like electricity, lead to extreme danger, and even death.
A few years ago, for instance, I got a sneak preview of an upcoming luxury sedan from a major automotive brand. Sitting in the driver’s seat, it all seemed elegant and sleek — until I noticed the in-car entertainment system below the dashboard. It was a large flat screen, seemingly designed to resemble an iPad. All the controls were touch-based, so there was no way for a driver to navigate the system without having to take their eyes off the road, even to perform a simple task like turning the volume down. Still worse, the display was bright blue, a key culprit for causing temporary vision impairment at night.
Physically, this vehicle was built to the world’s highest safety standards. Digitally, it was a turbo-charged safety hazard.
“I can’t believe the company let this thing on the road with this horrible display!” I ranted at the older gentleman who was climbing into the passenger’s seat. “It’s as if this entire system was tested in a lab under ideal conditions, but never once on the road with a single confused driver!”
The man winced, chuckled, and handed me his business card. He was the company’s CEO.
He readily accepted responsibility for the decision to add a touchscreen, despite its significant UX drawbacks; it was largely motivated, he explained, by a desire to make his automotive brand appear as forward-thinking as Tesla. Fortunately, his company managed to revert back to analog dashboard controls in subsequent editions of the car. By then, however, hundreds of millions had already been spent on a model that was far less safe to drive…