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Whenever there's a high profile product safety case in the news, someone asks engineers this question:

"Didn't you want to make your product as SAFE AS POSSIBLE?"

And here's how we respond:

Ghostbusters - When someone asks you if you're a God, you say yes

I just read a wonderful article in The New Yorker about automotive safety (The Engineer’s Lament: Two ways of thinking about automotive safety. By Malcolm Gladwell), and the fundamental difference between engineers and everyone else in the world.

It was about cars - the exploding Ford Pinto, the sudden unintended acceleration of the Toyota fleet, and why these cases were so controversial and sparked so much public outrage. In both cases, people looked dumbfounded at the manufacturers and said "You knew something could be an issue, why didn't you jump to correct it immediately?" And the engineer answer is that we were evaluating whether our fix would definitely work, whether our fix would have saved the last people who were injured in X accident, how likely the issue is to happen again, whether there's a workaround... and everyone hates us for talking about those factors.

I can say this since it's in the New Yorker: there is no such thing as exactly 100% safe. Maybe we can show something like "catastrophic failure condition liklihood less than 10-9" - which, as the article says, makes everybody glaze over then shout "why are you a-holes throwing these numbers at us when we just want you to FIX IT!"

There's a spectrum. Someone could argue that the failure of a coffee maker on our airplanes would deprive the flight crew of caffine, making them sleepy and unable to avoid hazards to the aircraft. And we debate them on that point, so we won't have to install 17 independent power sources to boost the reliability of the coffee maker. We will do exhaustive testing to ensure that the coffee maker won't catch on fire, and our customers will not like the cost of even that testing but we insist, and that's the other half of why nobody likes, or "gets" engineers. We deal with a billion parts, the public hears about two. And on those two we're either too conservative or not conservative enough, every time.

At the end of the day, the only thing I can ever say to convince someone that we are doing the right thing is to remind them that we're all in these vehicles, our families are in these vehicles, we are dedicated to meeting our standards. And the industry leaders who make the standards are also dedicated to setting us up to have safe products, because it's their families in the cars and airplanes. We didn't go into these jobs as a short term money grab. We know people won't buy unsafe products. We want them to be safe.

But when you talk about "what's safe?" That's a question that I'm sorry to say, can't just be simple.

Posts from This Journal by “engineering” Tag


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 29th, 2015 06:31 pm (UTC)
The only things that get me is when it is obviously unsafe in a way that seemed like they couldn't have done product testing and solicited feedback-- once I had a toaster oven where a metal bar on the top roof of it where one might easily touch it would get scorchingly hot-- or when it seems like cheap materials were used for the sake of keeping costs down at the expense of safety (which may not be the engineers' fault if they were forced to do that, but...) And it does seem safety standards differ from country to country; I don't really trust China where it seems like most things are made.

I do wonder about the longevity of some of the fixes. I have one of the Toyotas where some sort of plastic bag was wrapped around something or other as a fix. It sounded like a fix that might not last for decades.

Jul. 29th, 2015 08:57 pm (UTC)
This is on a complete tangent, but one of the things that I found interesting when I went to Hawaii was the lack of protective elements at the various wonders we went to - moreso on the islands other than Oahu - was the appearance, sometimes of a sign that essentially said "danger, use at own risk" and that's it.

Big ass cliff with a straight drop to sharp rocks at the bottom - sometimes there was a meager guardrail and only on the main section and then the guardrail ended.

Walking out to the lava flows - ever 30ft there's a marker indicating the safest route. There's no one monitoring, there's no "path" or structures. You look down and between the cracks, you see red lava. You fall, well, remember - lava is glass. You should have seen my hands and legs when I did fall. You get to the end, well, you can generally tell from the heat and moving lava not to go any closer. You went at dusk/night? If you didn't bring a flashlight, you're screwed. Ain't no one monitoring those "paths".

It was actually kinda refreshing from the nanny/safe state I see almost everywhere I go. :)
Jul. 30th, 2015 02:54 pm (UTC)
Similar in Alaska with glaciers. I loved it, for the same reason.
Jul. 29th, 2015 09:43 pm (UTC)
I would say people who apply math to things and everyone else in the world. But I don't know, for an artist I'm pretty much an engineer, so maybe I count.

Aircraft in particular, and especially commercial aircraft, have a safety rate that is completely mindboggling when you actually stop to think about what we're doing with them. The only reason it's believable that we can operate a huge commercial aircraft fleet without them falling apart in the air all the time is that we can look and see it's actually happening. If you'd put that in a novel anytime before the mid-seventies nobody would have believed it. You folks are wizards.
Jul. 30th, 2015 06:57 am (UTC)
Variant of this is "safety is our first priority!" Taken literally, that means "we don't do anything!" Because Doing. Stuff. Is. Dangerous. It's a fact - you take a risk every time you get out of bed, fix breakfast, drive to work, etc.

I like the previous commenter's remarks about aircraft, too. It boggles my mind that they work at all.
Jul. 30th, 2015 10:10 am (UTC)
You also take a risk if you stay in bed and don't do anything. There is no risk-free approach to life.
Jul. 30th, 2015 11:14 am (UTC)
Great thoughts on risk assessment and mitigation. My risk work is more about people (and money), and we face the same issues of risk aversion from people who don't understand.
Jul. 30th, 2015 11:33 am (UTC)
Disaster Junkie
I'm an engineering disaster junkie, the bigger and more protracted the disaster the better. Apollo 13, the Gulf oil rig explosion/fire/oil leak, Fukushima Daiichi, I'm so there.

Part of the fun is reading the comments of the "instant fix" brigade -- drop a battleship on top of the oil-spouting valve gear on the sea floor or explode a tactical nuke under the reactors at Fukushima and blow them into the sea to cool down. After face-palming and another cup of coffee I sometimes explain the fallacies and dangers, usually starting by explaining the decision tree the people in charge actually follow.

Number one, will this "instant fix" kill people?
Number two, will this "instant fix" make things worse?
Number three, if this "instant fix" fails to solve the problem will it make it more difficult to, you know, actually fix the problem later?

Only after those steps are worked through will anyone with any sense actually bend metal and pour concrete in an attempt to do something. I hope.
Aug. 1st, 2015 12:07 pm (UTC)

People get obsessed with perfection and 100%, but life is compromises, and there are constraints that have to be balanced because there's no way to satisfy them all. There's no such thing as 100% anything, there's just "good enough". Sometimes you can get very good! But the goal can never be perfection.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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