You (weren’t) supposed to blow the bloody doors off

Today’s revelation that a recent emergency aircraft landing at London’s Heathrow airport was caused by fan cowl doors on both engines being left unlatched presents a timely safety reminder to developers of Formula E racing cars.

According to an airline spokesperson quoted in the BBC report, the door latches should have been independently checked by two qualified engineers. Failing to close the doors resulted in them detaching during takeoff, the probable cause of an ensuing engine fire.

The incident raises three increasingly terrifying prospects:

  • Firstly, the latches failed. That seems to have been discounted by investigators, and the news piece quotes figures from aircraft manufacturer Airbus that detail 32 other detached cowl door events
  • Secondly, the engineers simply didn’t complete their checks properly
  • Lastly – and most frightening – they didn’t check at all

Formula E is going to propel innovation in electric vehicle technology faster than we can yet imagine. Just look at what motorsport has driven through in other sports.

However, high voltage, high current electrical systems must usher in serious safety considerations. The Fire Protection Research foundation report into the safety implications forĀ  firefighters in emergency situations involving electric and hybrid vehicles suggests that, with appropriate training and a high degree of safety by design, the risks these vehicles present are no greater than those of other modern cars or buildings.

But engineered-in safety only works to a point. Fukushima, the Japanese nuclear plant that failed following an earthquake, reminds us that even worst-case scenarios can be dwarfed by real life.

The fan cowl doors remind us that, despite phenomenal engineering advances, the weakest of links is enough to invite disaster. And often, the weakest link is human.

For Formula E, there are limited lessons to be learned from other motorsports. Much of the technology will be new, much of it unproven in a race environment. Ensuring that a simple, careless action – or lack of action – cannot comprise the safety of the drivers, mechanics, emergency crews and track side staff will be critical.

The developers and the promoters of Formula E must ensure that the human cost is not forgotten in the quest to push the frontiers of science.

 

 

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