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

All planes, trains and automobiles should have substantially more technology than they do today. Plus, they should all be allowed to be taken over by a remote, approved agency in case of problems that would negatively affect the ability of the vehicle to reach its destination safely. Here, Knowledge Center mobile and wireless analyst J. Gerry Purdy explains why we should use networking of vehicles, remote robotics and device intelligence to prevent problems that would endanger passenger lives.


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.