In the early morning on August 21, 2017, the US Navy destroyer John S McCain was in the Singapore Strait – one of the busiest waterways in the world – inbound for a port call in Singapore. Through a lot of confusion about the ship’s controls, the ship started veering port. Within about three minutes, another ship had struck the starboard side of the John S McCain. The impact breached the hull in a berthing compartment, and 10 sailors were killed.
Recently, the National Transportation Safety Board released an accident report for the incident. There were many factors that led to this unfortunate circumstance, from fatigue to a lack of training, but one thing that stood out was the touch-screen controls for thrust and steering.
The NTSB report suggests that had mechanical throttles been present, the helmsmen would have likely been able to feel the problems in steering and correct for them much more quickly. They note that mechanical throttles are preferred because “they provide both immediate and tactile feedback to the operator.”
During a keynote speech at the American Society of Naval Engineers’ annual Fleet Maintenance and Modernization Symposium, Program Executive Officer for Ships Rear Adm. Bill Galinis said as a result of innovation and a desire to incorporate new technology, “we got away from the physical throttles, and that was probably the number-one feedback from the fleet – they said, just give us the throttles that we can use.”
“When we started getting the feedback from the fleet from the Comprehensive Review effort – it was SEA 21 (NAVSEA’s surface ship lifecycle management organization) that kind of took the lead on doing some fleet surveys and whatnot – it was really eye-opening. And it goes into the, in my mind, ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ category.”
In our modern world, there’s a constant push towards new technology and innovations. This is often a good thing, but there are also times when new technology is deployed because that’s what everyone else is doing, and not enough thought is put into the ‘why’. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
Take the time to better understand what the underlying issues are. Work out the weaknesses of the current systems and find ways to modernise and improve them. But also pay attention to the stuff that works well in the current system and try to factor that into the new design. Just give us the throttles that we can use.