Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma


We live in an increasingly complex society. We’re more connected than we’ve ever been (computers, smartphones, tablets, fitbits, the internet of things). And for the most part, that complexity has been a benefit, saving us time and/or money. Washing machines hooked up to the internet can run when energy costs are the cheapest, which benefits everyone.

Self-driving vehicles are already on the road in places and will become more prevalent with every passing year. Even cars that we still have to drive ourselves have more technology than ever before – back-up cameras, sensor-driven automatic braking, automated parallel parking.

These are good things, generally.

For example, I bought a 2013 Accord a couple years ago to replace my 2000 Camry. It’s much more reliant on computers than the older vehicle; it offers additional dashboard assistance, like a wrench that lights up to tell you when you need an oil change, or a horseshoe light that tells you when your tire pressure is low.

But there are downsides too. A few weeks ago, I had to get new tires. Shortly after driving away from the garage, a dashboard sensor light came on: the tire pressure sensor had activated.

I called the garage and they said the sensor simply had to be reset, so I went back to the garage and they reset it. Two weeks later, the sensor light came on again. I checked the tire pressure and all four tires were within the proper parameters. So I called the garage and again went in to have them reset the sensor a second time.

They told me they couldn’t guarantee that this would be the end of it. Perhaps, they suggested, one of the tire sensors had gone bad. If so, the light would come on again and I might have to replace the sensor or just drive around with the sensor light on all the time.

I know several people who drive around with their Check Engine lights on all the time because when they take their vehicles in, the mechanics can’t find anything wrong. They might be able to reset the light, but that only lasts for a short time before the light comes on again.

But here’s where the bigger problem enters the picture. When one of these small sensors activates enough times, we tend to just ignore it. We assume it’s a false alarm just like the previous thirteen times the light went on. So we continue to drive the vehicle under that assumption.

Yet, one of those times, it’s not going to be just a faulty sensor. It’s going to be something big, like a cracked engine block or a nuclear plant that suffers a meltdown or a jet that stalls and crashes or a deep-water oil rig that explodes in the Gulf of Mexico.

We can’t eliminate complexity completely, but we can work to minimize its effects by building in safeguards, by being more robotic, more compulsive about checking every time a complex system informs us it’s failing. Yes, it’s tedious, but it’s not a waste of time if it saves us from a catastrophe even just once.


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