INSIDE MOBILE: Planes, Trains, Automobiles: Why Computers Should Be In Control

By J. Gerry Purdy  |  Posted 2010-03-18

INSIDE MOBILE: Planes, Trains, Automobiles: Why Computers Should Be In Control

In the renowned 1987 movie, "Planes, Trains & Automobiles," advertising exec Neal Page (Steve Martin) and shower ring salesman Del Griffith (John Candy) are total strangers. Together, they use all three forms of transportation in an effort to get home for Thanksgiving. Things go awry during their entire trip from New York to Chicago.

On Oct. 21, 2009, Northwest Flight #188 missed landing in Minneapolis. The pilots (Captain Timothy Cheney of Gig Harbor, Washington and Richard Cole of Salem, Oregon) had the plane on autopilot, lost track of time while they were using their personal notebook computers (the same as many of the passengers were also doing at the same time), and didn't notice warning messaging flashing on the cockpit display telling them that they had missed their destination to land in Minneapolis.

They went 200+ miles past Minneapolis before a flight attendant noticed that something was wrong and banged on the cockpit door, thus alerting the pilots to "get their minds back toward landing the plane." Fortunately, no one was hurt and the plane landed safely.

Not enough technology

On Oct. 27, 2009, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) revoked the pilots' licenses. An ABC World News Tonight segment then suggested that perhaps there is too much technology in airplanes today, leaving pilots without much to do. I want to propose that there is not enough technology in airplanes today-and we should quickly remedy the situation. Here's why.

It's fortunate that this situation didn't cause any real danger to the passengers. Things such as this may have a positive outcome: they can work to prevent similar situations from happening again. You have to ask yourself about the pilots on this flight in an Anderson Cooper vein, "What in the world were they thinking?"

I agree that planes today have a lot of technology that make the flying of planes more akin to programming a computer. Most-if not all-commercial planes can be programmed at the end of the runway before taking off to fly without human intervention and land safely at the destination. It is human error that often causes the problems, not the autopilot. There are cases of pilot flight control, however, that have had disastrous outcomes.

Cameras in the Cockpit

Cameras in the cockpit

The first thing we need to do is install cameras in the cockpit that can be turned on in justified situations to see if there is something wrong. Or, the cameras could be on all the time and have the images recorded in the Flight Data Recorder (FDR).

The most important thing we need to do is add technology to allow the FAA to take over the control of any flight over United States airspace if there are indications of problems onboard that would interfere with the safety of the flight. Humans make mistakes. Worse, they do bad things.

Look at what happened on Oct. 31, 1999. EgyptAir Flight 990 was flying from Los Angeles to New York and then on to Cairo, Egypt. At around 01:50 E.T., the plane plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) south of Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, in international waters, killing all of the 217 people onboard. [Note: I had a friend that was onboard this flight and I subsequently raised money for a scholarship in his name at Stanford University].

An FAA investigation concluded that first officer Gameel Al-Batouti was suffering from depression and decided to commit suicide and take the entire flight with him into the ocean. The captain had gone to the restroom, then noticed the problem and tried to re-take command of the plane-but the copilot proved stronger and the flight went into the ocean. The flight deviated from its assigned altitude of 33,000 feet and dived to 16,000 feet for over 44 seconds, then climbed to 24,000 and began a final dive, hitting the Atlantic Ocean in about two and a half minutes.

Prevent Disasters Remotely

Prevent disasters remotely

Clearly, disasters such as this can be prevented. This is a good example of the need to have someone with the FAA be able to take over control of the airplane remotely and save the passengers from certain (and unnecessary) death.

The same can be said for planes, trains and automobiles. We should use networking of vehicles, remote robotics, and device intelligence to minimize or (hopefully) prevent accidents and other stupid things that put the lives of passengers at risk.

Eventually, we'll have cars so automated that we'll simply have a grid of them. We'll order one and it will show up at our house or office. We'll speak or enter the destination and it will take us there-safely. And when it needs maintenance, it will drive itself to the maintenance center where other robotic repair machines will fix and maintain the car.

You think this is farfetched? Look at what the researchers have already done at Stanford: they have taken a standard Volkswagen and modified it with robotic sensors and computer intelligence so that it can drive itself around the campus.

Thus, all planes, trains and automobiles should have substantially more technology than they do today. And they should all be allowed to be taken over by a remote, approved agency in case of disasters or problems that would negatively affect the ability of the vehicle to reach its destination safely.

J. Gerry Purdy, Ph.D. is Principal Analyst of Mobile & Wireless at MobileTrax LLC. As a nationally recognized industry authority, Dr. Purdy focuses on monitoring and analyzing emerging trends, technologies and market behavior in the mobile computing and wireless data communications industry in North America. Dr. Purdy is an "edge of network" analyst looking at devices, applications and services, as well as wireless connectivity to those devices. Dr. Purdy provides critical insights regarding mobile and wireless devices, wireless data communications and connection to the infrastructure that powers the data in the wireless handheld. He is author of the column Inside Mobile & Wireless that provides industry insights and is read by over 100,000 people a month.

Dr. Purdy continues to be affiliated with the venture capital industry as well. He currently is Managing Director at Yosemite Ventures. And he spent five years as a Venture Advisor for Diamondhead Ventures in Menlo Park where he identified, attracted and recommended investments in emerging companies in mobile and wireless. He has had a prior affiliation with East Peak Advisors and, subsequently, following their acquisition, with FBR Capital Markets. For more than 16 years, Dr. Purdy has been consulting, speaking, researching, networking, writing and developing state-of-the-art concepts that challenge people's mind-sets, as well as developing new ways of thinking and forecasting in the mobile computing and wireless data arenas. Often quoted, Dr. Purdy's ideas and opinions are followed closely by thought leaders in the mobile and wireless industry. He is author of three books as well.

Dr. Purdy currently is a member of the Program Advisory Board of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) which produces CES, one of the largest trade shows in the world. He is a frequent moderator at CTIA conferences and GSM Mobile World Congress.  He also is a member of the Board of the Atlanta Wireless Technology Forum. Dr. Purdy has a B.S. degree in Engineering Physics from University of Tennessee, a M.S. degree in Computer Science from UCLA, and a Ph.D. in Computer Science and Exercise Physiology from Stanford University. He can be reached at

Disclosure Statement: From time to time, I may have a direct or indirect equity position in a company that is mentioned in this column. If that situation happens, then I'll disclose it at that time. I have an affiliation with IDG Ventures.

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