Boeing’s battery woes redux…

05/12/2014 — Leave a comment

787 Battery after fire (Image source: NTSB)

The NTSB have released their final report on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner Li-Ion battery fires. The report makes interesting reading, but for me the most telling point is summarised in conclusion seven, which I quote below.

Conclusion 7. Boeing’s electrical power system safety assessment did not consider the most severe effects of a cell internal short circuit and include requirements to mitigate related risks, and the review of the assessment by Boeing authorized representatives and Federal Aviation Administration certification engineers did not reveal this deficiency.

NTSB/AIR-14/01  (p78 )

In other words Boeing got themselves into a position with their safety assessment where their ‘assumed worst case’ was much less worse case than the reality. This failure to imagine the worst ensured that when they aggressively weight optimised the battery design instead of thermally optimising it, the risks they were actually running were unwittingly so much higher.

The first principal is that you must not fool yourself, and that you are the easiest person to fool

Richard P. Feynman

I’m also thinking that the behaviour of Boeing is consistent with what McDermid et al, calls probative blindness. That is, the safety activities that were conducted were intended to comply with regulatory requirements rather than actually determine what hazards existed and their risk.

… there is a high level of corporate confidence in the safety of the [Nimrod aircraft]. However, the lack of structured evidence to support this confidence clearly requires rectifying, in order to meet forthcoming legislation and to achieve compliance.

Nimrod Safety Management Plan 2002 (1)

As the quote from the Nimrod program deftly illustrates, often (2) safety analyses are conducted simply to confirm what we already ‘know’ that the system is safe, non-probative if you will. In these circumstances the objective is compliance with the regulations rather than to generate evidence that our system is unsafe. In such circumstances doing more or better safety analysis is unlikely to prevent an accident because the evidence will not cause beliefs to change, belief it seems is a powerful thing.

The Boeing battery saga also illustrates how much regulators like the FAA actually rely on the technical competence of those being regulated, and how fragile that regulatory relationship is when it comes to dealing with the safety of emerging technologies.

Notes

1. As quoted in Probative Blindness: How Safety Activity can fail to Update Beliefs about Safety, A J Rae*, J A McDermid, R D Alexander, M Nicholson (IET SSCS Conference 2014).

2. Actually in aerospace I’d assert that it’s normal practice to carry out hazard analyses simply to comply with a regulatory requirement. As far as the organisation commissioning them is concerned the results are going to tell them what they know already, that the system is safe.

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