U.S. Navy destroyers without physical throttles?

17 Aug


Touchscreen throttles on US Navy Destroyer John S McCain
Section of NTSB report explaining touchscreen throttles used on USS John S McCain

Touchscreens work well for many tasks at a boat helm (and elsewhere), I think, but a touchscreen throttle never even occurred to me until I read about the Navy “reverting to physical throttles” on warships like the USS John S McCain. Holy cow! Why the heck did we deprive destroyer drivers of the excellent (electronic) control interface known as a throttle lever, and why is Wired magazine mispresenting the “reversion”?

Helm of USS Dewey with only the throttles seen on screen
Helm of USS Dewey (DDG-105) with the only throttles seen on screen

I’d be very hesitant to criticize a destroyer’s helm ergonomics because I’ve never experienced a vessel even remotely similar, but you too may mutter “Duh!” after reading this U.S. Naval Institute’s reporting. Of course the helmsmen would like familiar throttle levers instead of — or maybe in addition to — awkwardly reaching for the software version on those big touchscreens, and it’s quite hard to understand how actual physical throttles got left off these vessels in the first place.

But let’s note that touchscreen throttles were not a major factor in the deadly collision caused by the McCain off Singapore. The NTSB’s thorough accident report (PDF) does cite confusion about how steering control was switched among helm stations via the graphical user interface (GUI), but pins the main blame on “a lack of effective operational oversight of the destroyer… which resulted in insufficient training and inadequate bridge operating procedures.” Command heads rolled.

Despite the wisdom of the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board), it’s no longer surprising when some folks blame electronics for human errors. But it’s shocking that a great source of tech writing like Wired magazine published “NO MORE SCREEN TIME! THE NAVY REVERTS TO PHYSICAL THROTTLES.” The entire article is predicated on the completely mistaken notion that the Navy is replacing the touchscreens with normal (electronic) throttle hardware. So “NO LESS SCREEN TIME!” would be a more truthful headline!

Lower helm on Gizmo at purchase in March 2019
Color screens, some touch, have replaced most of Gizmo’s lower helm since March 2009, but the throttle/shift lever (and thruster joystick) remain because they are excellent interfaces to the underlying electronic controls.

My thinking: electronics aren’t going away, and shouldn’t, but that certainly doesn’t mean that we must always relate to them via touchscreens. Heck, the excellent single-lever throttle/shift at each of Gizmo’s helms are not needed to leverage stiff control cables — the boat has been “fly by wire” for 20 years. But the lever is tactile, visual, it’s always in the same place, and it doesn’t change functions. I’d certainly consider additional control like the Dockmate that Ben Stein is testing, but would never ever remove the levers.

Come to think of it, I’d also consider a smartphone with a knob and curser controller for the many tasks where they’re better than touch, except it wouldn’t fit in my pocket. What’s your thinking?

This article was syndicated from Panbo


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