Touchscreens are awful, US Navy declares

The United States Navy will be ditching touchscreens on its fleet soon, after a decision to revert control systems back to standard physical controls was made for its upcoming new DDG-51 destroyers.

In designing military ships for the US Navy, there is often no strict code, layout, our guidelines to follow. This allows shipbuilders to incorporate any type of design so long as it is expected to provide relative efficiency onto its purpose.

Due to the default drive to push for technological innovation on these vessels, updating access and navigation systems with the latest in consumer technology can become the norm. Thus touchscreens were soon incorporated in US Navy destroyers following the boom of mobile devices during the early 2010s.

Unfortunately, this might have been the point where design fails to meet more traditional practical criteria.

In 2017, two accidents involving the US ships were indirectly attributed to poor control and maneuvering of the vessels. The USS Fitzgerald collided with South Korean tanker ACX Crystal in June, while USS McCain crashed into another tanker off the coast of Singapore in August.

There was no specific mention of touchscreens being directly responsible for these incidents. However, the investigations have largely concluded that the delay to respond to the urgency of an imminent collision was squarely pointed to how the ship’s personnel was poorly trained for the complexity of the ship system’s touchscreen UI.

These two accidents have then prompted the Navy to announce its decision to refit its current DDG-51 destroyer fleet with physical throttles, as well as a more traditional and manual helm control system. According to an interview by USNI to Rear Admiral Lorin Selby, the emphasis on instantly and instinctively knowing the information and the associated action needed is very much tied to the layout of physical controls.

While it is arguable that adequate training and acclimation may be the only necessary requirements to ensure the optimal use of a touchscreen-based system, reacting quickly to certain urgent situations may not be possible due to the multiple layers of access. This is where the importance of direct control and haptic feedback (and thus reduced delay) provided by physical control systems come into play.

In fact, even other organizations and business entities in the tech industry have also reverted back, at least partially, from full touchscreen interfaces due to the exact same control delay concerns. Later versions of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, for example, was refitted with physical buttons to ensure that control is maintained, even in the event of a screen malfunction.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for the current trend in automobiles to forego traditional buttons and meters. Probably best exemplified by a Tesla.

According to the US Navy, the refits are scheduled to be completed sometime during 2020, projected towards an 18-month reinstallation and implementation period.

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