There is an old saying that goes “just because you could, doesn’t mean you should.” And because it’s old, it is also often taken for granted. That, however, seems to the realization that the US Navy has reached in investigating a fatal warship collision in 2017. Moving forward, the Navy will be installing physical controls and throttles on warships installed with touchscreens after an overwhelming amount of fleets voiced their preference for the analog controls over flat glass ones.
A few years back, the Navy seemed forward-looking and almost Trek-like in taking the first steps towards equipping ships with touchscreens that both conveyed information as well as allowed control of the ship with their fingers. The Integrated Bridge and Navigation System would have been the interface of the future. But then the USS John S. McCain collided with with a Liberian-flagged vessel, resulting in the death of 10 Navy sailors.
The incident was initially blamed on the leadership of the McCain but further investigation revealed it was, instead, due to oversight and lack of training with the IBNS. During a crisis situation, the new touch-based controls proved to be too confusing for those less familiar with them and the Navy’s training program was deemed insufficient.
As a result, the Navy will be installing physical controls on DDG-51 class ships starting with the DDG-61 in 2020. The first new ship that will be constructed with those physical controls instead of touchscreen ones will be the DDG-128. Installations will begin after the Navy has fully tested the hardware and software changes so that the problem won’t simply be moved from touchscreens to physical controls.
While it might seem like damning evidence against touch interfaces, the Navy isn’t yet closing its doors on such new technologies. It will, however, take greater care to make sure that such interfaces will be easy to understand, especially during emergencies.