“The Engineer’s Lament” by Malcolm Gladwell

Gladwell’s piece The Engineer’s Lament in the New Yorker covers the problem that engineers face on a daily basis: How to solve a problem given a set of constraints.

He covers a tragic, fatal car crash. The crash was tragic. But, the ensuing prosecution of the car manufacture and the drivers was not the smartest way to create safer roads.

He defends Toyota and their team of engineers,

“The public saw things very differently. They didn’t think about the necessary compromises inherent in the design process. They didn’t understand that a car was engineered to be tolerant of things like sticky pedals. They looked at the part in isolation, saw that it did not work as they expected it to work—and foresaw the worst. What if an inexperienced driver found his car behaving unexpectedly and panicked? To the engineer, a car sits somewhere on the gradient of acceptability. To the public, a car’s status is binary: it is either broken or working, flawed or functional.”

His article makes a simple point. While people want to blame car manufactures, we, as drivers, need to driver safer. He proves this by citing the Pedal Error.

The other obvious fact is that the variables that really matter have to do with the driver, not the car. The public approach to auto safety is preoccupied with what might go wrong mechanically with the vehicles we drive. But the chief factor is not what we drive; it is how we drive. Richard Schmidt, who is perhaps the world’s leading expert on pedal error, says that the Toyota sudden-acceleration controversy ought to have triggered a national discussion about safer driving. He argues for overturning the deeply held—and, in his view, irrational—proscription against two-foot driving. If drivers used one foot for the accelerator and the other foot for the brake, he says, they would be far less likely to mistake one pedal for the other. Accidents could be prevented; lives could be saved. But in order to talk about solving the pedal-error problem you have to accept the fact that, when it comes to saving lives, things like the number of police on the road, and the price of alcohol, and the techniques we use to drive our cars are vastly more important than where a car’s gas tank is mounted.

It’s always easier to blame the engineer who built the car than for us to behave as more responsible drivers.

I highly recommend the whole piece (~18 min read).

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