The last time you sat down to dinner at a restaurant, did you think to ask if the water was clean? Or when you recently flew to see relatives did you ask a flight attendant if the planes’ autopilot had redundancies built into it? Of course not. You don’t think twice about your fast food because you’ve eaten there a hundred times before. You don’t bother the flight attendant because you’ve heard that the odds of being involved in a plane crash are 1 in 10 million, making it statically safer than driving to work.
It’s All About Trust
No one is able to check that all their food is free from contamination or that their car has properly working airbags: this is why we have domestic and international safety regulations. Safety regulations rely upon systems of hardware and software designed to save lives by being ‘fail safe.’ Daily, we place our lives in the hands of these unknown systems and rarely give it a second thought. We are so confident in our ‘fail safe’ systems that when a person becomes a wreck before a plane takes off, they’re viewed as child-like for their fear of flying. Or when a person asks what cleaners are used in fast food kitchens, they are seen as a germophobe. Through our years of societal trial and error, we’ve developed a trust for these systems when most people couldn’t tell you what they’re called.
The technical term is “Critical Systems” and they are defined as computer, electronic, or electromechanical systems whose failure is deemed “unacceptable.” There are three categories of critical systems: safety, business, and mission. A mission critical system’s failure appropriately results in the failure of a mission and is usually in reference to military operations or space exploration. Business critical system failures may result in great financial loss: these are failures consumers may occasionally be affected by, like when Target’s massive data breach resulted in nearly 40 million stolen credit card numbers. The final category is safety critical systems which directly affect the general population daily. These are systems where failure may result in injury or death to human beings, significant property damage, or damage to the environment. With such high stakes, these systems are designed to lose less than one life per billion hours of operation.
Safety critical systems are used in many ways and for many different purposes with the end goal to save lives. Some bigger examples of how these systems keep us safe are nuclear power plant control stations, air traffic control terminals, and lock systems at maximum security prisons. Some smaller ways these systems save lives are in elevators, roller coasters, and medical devices such as insulin pumps.
When Fail-Proof Fails
When the worst happens and safety critical systems fail, it’s always disastrous. On a small scale this can include auto recalls or roller coaster accidents. On a larger scale accidents become mega news stories and may even make us question our trust in what we thought were ‘fail proof’ systems. For example in 1996, Valujet Flight 592 accident claimed the lives of a DC-9’s passengers and crew when it crashed after takeoff in Miami due to a malfunction in the safety system software. In more recent news, the failure of an unknown component of the critical safety system launched the investigation into missing Malaysian flight 370.
Where Safety and Innovation Meet
The development of safety critical systems is expensive. An extensive safety audit is required before for any work can be done. Because of the regime of engineers and litany of tests required to ensure safety, often the methods used are not cost effective. This monetary pitfall is a normal part of the process. A potential third quarter loss is nowhere near as upsetting as a potential system failure.
With such a high cost of development there are only a small number of companies who have the capital to invest in facilities using engineering in such a progressive way. Google is one such company that has been utilizing safety critical systems to make great advancements to our technological world. One of the most impressive projects to come out of their research facility Google X in Mountain View, California, are the Google self-driving cars, which are now currently being tested around the country. Through the development of advanced driver-assisted systems Google’s self-driving cars will assure safe travel to those who are unable to drive due to disability or another condition. This might seem like something straight out of a sci-fi movie--because it is. One element of Google X’s mission is to help as many people as possible by using technology available today in and the most progressive ways. Every project must contain at least one element of what we know as ‘science fiction’ because the engineers at Google want to prove that in our technological world, imagination is not hindered by technology but instead is supported by it. Safety critical and other ‘fail proof’ systems play a vital role in Google and other companies’ strategies for innovation, while providing a great example of how science fiction has translated into life-saving technology.
Next time you find yourself sitting down to an extra value meal or preparing for takeoff, take 30 seconds to think about that dedicated team of engineers and the massive amount of software it took to ensure that your drink tastes like it should, and those emergency lights don’t come on. Then relax and enjoy. Critical safety systems allow us to live in an age of unprecedented trust in safety technology and we’re on the precipice of an even safer tomorrow.