As technology puts more and more demands on drivers' attention spans, the risk of information...

As technology puts more and more demands on drivers' attention spans, the risk of information overload and paralysis in the face of danger rises.

Image: U.S. Department of Transportation 

Wild, chaotic, and stressful beyond words.

That’s what it was like for the brave young Americans flying combat missions over North Vietnam a half century ago. And, believe it or not, there are more than a few parallels between problems the U.S. Air Force faced then and the trucking industry faces today.

For starters, the war wasn’t popular, so the Air Force was dealing with a severe shortage of qualified pilots. And the airspace around Hanoi was the most heavily defended in history, with myriad threats, including Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), radar-guided anti-aircraft artillery, and MiG fighter planes (also supplied to the North Vietnamese by the Russians). Clearly, the Air Force had to do something to help retain the pilots it had and reduce losses to both men and material over the North.

To help its pilots perform better and stay safe in such a dangerous and dynamic environment, the Air Force supplied a multitude of technological aids. There were early-warning AWACs aircraft orbiting over the South China Sea, to provide a more complete picture of when and where North Vietnamese fighters were, as well as a full array of electronic warfare systems on American fighters to let pilots know when enemy radar systems were tracking them and alert them when enemy missiles were on the way. And, of course, there were other pilots, who were trained to look out for one another and call out threats on the radio to keep everyone safe and informed over the target. And still, it wasn’t enough. The loss rate for men and aircraft over North Vietnam remained high for the duration of the conflict. 

After the war, one American F-4 Phantom pilot recalled his Very Bad Day over Hanoi, twisting and jinking his jet to avoid enemy fire, dodging other aircraft, all the while trying to get into position behind a Mig 21 for a missile shot. He was almost lined up for the kill, when out of nowhere, a SAM exploded outside his cockpit, instantly turning his $2 million Phantom Jet into so much falling junk.

The pilot and his back-seater ejected safely but were quickly captured by the North Vietnamese and spent several miserable years as guests at the infamous Hanoi Hilton. And during that long stretch of time in captivity, the pilot kept wondering how – with all of that technology and systems at his back – that SAM had gotten close enough to his jet to blow it out of the sky.

Upon his release at the end of the war, Air Force debriefers played back audio tapes of the shoot-down for the pilot. He was stunned to learn that, in fact, he’d had multiple warnings that enemy radar was tracking his jet and that a SAM was inbound. In fact, he’d had information coming in from several sources warning him of the danger – from his aircraft’s own threat assessment systems, to AWACs warning, to his to fellow pilots yelling at him on the radio that a missle was coming and he needed to maneuver out of the way.

But he’d heard none of it. “I was totally saturated with information,” he said later. “In fact, I had so much information coming in, I couldn’t prioritize it and act on it the way I needed to.”

The lesson here – taken to heart by the Air Force – is that there is, in fact, such a thing as too much information in a dynamic work environment like an airplane cockpit (or a truck cab or a fleet manager’s office). It’s human nature to want to give people as much information as possible. But, given the average human being’s ability to simultaneously process data from multiple sources, it’s clear that there’s a very thin line between actionable intelligence and information overload.

OEMs and telematics providers are aware of this problem – and they need to be. As our information technology gets faster and more detailed, the line between driver attentiveness and autonomous vehicle systems blur, and our roadways become more congested, the demands on driver attention grow more and more intense. As that Air Force pilot learned the hard way, if you focus on one problem too long, or tune out too many warnings, the consequences can be severe – even fatal.

The trick here is to provide the right information at the right time in the right way so that a driver – or a fleet manager – can react quickly and correctly to the problem or the threat at hand. It’s not an easy balance to strike. But finding that information sweet spot, and constantly adjusting it as new technology comes online, will be increasingly important for all of us in the coming years. Because if you think you have a lot of data and information coming in to you now on a daily, hourly or even minute-to-minute basis – just wait.

About the author
Jack Roberts

Jack Roberts

Executive Editor

Jack Roberts is known for reporting on advanced technology, such as intelligent drivetrains and autonomous vehicles. A commercial driver’s license holder, he also does test drives of new equipment and covers topics such as maintenance, fuel economy, vocational and medium-duty trucks and tires.

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