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The 5 most common causes of airplane crashes (and what it means for self-driving cars)

Self-driving cars are fast becoming reality. Tesla’s Autopilot, though not actually 100% autonomous, is the closest thing we have yet. Indeed, assuming the lawyers keep up with technology, we can expect fully self-driving cars within three to five years, tops, thanks to pioneering efforts by Tesla, Apple, Mercedes, and Google.

Thing is though, not everyone is convinced this is a good thing. Review, after review, after review of Tesla’s new Autopilot functionality has been met with fascination laced with trepidation and anxiety. Which is weird, because we humans seem perfectly fine trusting our fellow distracted drivers; and we have no problems at all with Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s flying at 39,000 feet, at 85% the speed of sound, entirely by computer, even landing fully autonomously.

The concerns about self-driving cars, meanwhile, all resonate around a common theme: how can we trust a computer to drive us safely?

Well, we can. We should. And soon, we will have to. The fact is, it is precisely thanks to automated flight systems that flying has become so safe (your chances of dying in an airplane are now one in 11 million.

Moreover, when we look at the five most common causes of airplane crashes between 2005 through 2014, aviation accidents caused by flight computer error don’t even make the list.

So here are the top five most common causes of airplane crashes, and why it indisputably reinforces the need to mandate autonomous vehicles sooner rather than later:

1. Loss of control in flight

Loss of control in flight refers to an accident caused by the crew’s inability to maintain control of the aircraft. This has been the overwhelming cause of all aviation accidents, by far. An example that comes to mind is Air France Flight 447: yes the autopilot systems failed due to icing of the speed probe sensors upon which the flight computers relied, but the pilots should have been able to fly the plane instead of entering a catastrophic stall and crashing into the Atlantic.

2. Controlled flight into terrain

With about 50% fewer fatalities, crashing into terrain is the second most common cause of aviation accidents. Also conveniently self-explanatory, these crashes are caused by pilots crashing the planes into the ground or water. The most tragic example is the recent GermanWings 9525 pilot-suicide where the Airbus A320 was directed by the co-pilot to fly into a mountain in the south of France.

3. Runway excursions

Nearly tied with the previous category of accidents, runway excursions can include aircraft that overshoot the runway (i.e., go off the end); undershoot the runway (impact before the runway); or those that impact the runway with too fast a descent rate causing damage or destruction of the aircraft. A perfect example here is the mind-blowing Asiana 214 crash in San Francisco: a clear, sunny day, virtually no winds, and yet somehow, the flight crew managed to crash a 777–200ER, an aircraft with a virtually untarnished safety record.

4. Unknown or undetermined

Fourth on the list, making up just 12% of all crashes, are those accidents for which, admittedly, we do not yet know the cause. The textbook example is deeply unsettling and mysterious disappearance of Malaysia 370, the 777–200ER lost over the Indian Ocean in 2014.

5. System / Component Failure or Malfunction (Power plant)

The final category on the list, roughly tied with the unknown or undetermined causes of accidents system or component failures or malfunctions with aircraft power plants, i.e., the engines. A counter-example — i.e., one in which the flight crew’s superlative skill prevented what would have surely been a fatal accident — was Qantas 32 which suffered an uncontained engine failure; in a word, one of four engines on a new Airbus A380 exploded, tearing holes in the wings and numerous critical systems.

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Quite alarmingly, the primary cause of all aviation accidents is none other than pilot error.

The key takeaway of all this should be plainly clear: it is virtually unheard of for an airplane’s flight computer to be the cause of an aviation tragedy. From takeoff to landing, these remarkable autopilot systems safely transport us around the world, even landing us safely in “zero-zero” conditions, i.e., zero visibility at zero altitude. Indeed, quite alarmingly, the primary cause of all aviation accidents is none other than pilot error.

So now let’s apply this logic to cars, and the burgeoning self-driving car revolution.

If 90% of cars on American roads were autonomous, accidents would fall from 5.5m a year to 1.3m.

The Economist reported in August that “if 90% of cars on American roads were autonomous, accidents would fall from 5.5m a year to 1.3m.” Considering that we lose about 3,000 lives per month to car accidents, it seems criminally flawed not to fast-track autonomous driving laws not only to allow self-driving vehicles, but indeed, to mandate them.

Originally published at on October 23, 2015.

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