In the wake of the unfortunate tragedy surrounding the Titan submersible questions arise on the responsibility and duty of individuals who created and conceived the mission. And while to err is indeed human, and without adding to the speculations surrounding this specific case, questions do arise on what preventive steps could be taken to avoid errors, particularly when the stakes are so high.
History shows us that technological failures can and do happen. Miscalculations of resonance led to undampened oscillations and twisting that led to the eventual collapse of the Tacoma Narrows bridge on the 7th of November, 1940.
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge Collapse
Between the 1990s and early 2000s, the giant car manufacturer Ford and the tyre manufacturer Firestone set about a series of events that led to the controversial recall of the Ford Explorer, not before claiming the lives of some 200 people and injuring others.
The story of how negligence, greed, and corporate deception killed over 200 people and one of the automotive industry's longest-lasting partnerships 
An unfortunate series of events, this time at the Alton Towers theme park in the summer of 2016, led to a fully occupied rollercoaster car crashing head on, and at high speed into an empty car leading to life-changing injuries to two young women.
The Alton Towers rollercoaster incident
In 2017, Samsung was involved in controversy around the Note 7 whose battery was overheating, leading to fires. All Note 7 products were recalled, costing the Samsung $5.3bn losses and a huge dent in its reputation .
Given these incidents, are we, as consumers placing blind-faith in the technology we are using?
Before alarm bells start ringing, it is worth noting that engineering works are not operating through a wild-west scenario but are governed by standards and regulations.
What are these standards and regulations?
In the engineering world, standards are documents that define the characteristics of a product, process or service. They are guidelines that provide a common framework and reference that engineers from around the world can use to ensure that the product, process or service they are offering can be provided in a way that is safe, consistent and reliable. There are different standards, depending on the product or service being offered. For example:
Design standards provide guidelines for the physical aspects of a product, such as the strength, durability and functionality of the components. For example, in the design of a bridge, there is a minimum requirement on the strength of the materials used, the stresses and strains that the different components can withstand to ensure that the bridge can handle the expected traffic passing through it.
Manufacturing standards outline the specifications of the manufacturing processes and quality control. They ensure that products will always be manufactured in a consistent manner. For example, the thread and thickness of screws are not arbitrarily set by the manufacturer but follow standard measurements. Besides ensuring consistency in quality, this also ensures that products purchased from different vendors can be brought together without loss of quality.
Safety standards aim to protect the individual, property and the environment from any potential hazards. They therefore establish the guidelines for the safe operation, maintenance of equipment and systems.
Performance standards define measurable criteria for the performance and efficiency of products and systems. For example, the energy efficiency of appliances such as air-conditioning systems or refrigerators are governed by such standards, making it easier for the consumer to compare and evaluate the performance expectations of these appliances.
Interoperability standards govern the exchange of data, information and services between different systems, platforms or devices. Internet protocols (e.g. TCP/IP) is a classical example of such a standard, ensuring that data can be interchanged easily through the internet. Other examples include standard file formats such as JPEG and PDF that ensure that files can be opened on different devices, or communication standards such as Bluetooth and USB that ensure that data from different devices can be interchanged (e.g. music from your laptop/mobile can be passed on to your earphones).
Environmental standards focus on the impact that engineering products or services have on the environment. These standards, then address issues such as waste management, missions control, provide guidelines for sustainability of building design and construction among others.
From the engineer's perspective, the standards provide the guidelines needed to ensure that the products or services are created using the best practices, ensuring safety and quality of the product or service. From the consumer perspective, products and services that are created following the relevant standards give a degree of confidence on the quality of the product or service. Standards also provide a legal and enforceable means of regulating and evaluating the quality of products or services.
Who creates these standards?
Standards are created by different societies, standard organisations or government entities. For example, the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) is responsible for standards that govern many electrical and electronic technologies such as communication protocols, computer networking and power systems. The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) is an independent, non-governmental organisation that develops and publishes international standards that govern a wide variety of industries and sectors including quality, energy, environmental, and health and safety management among others. These institutions and organisations employ engineers with technical expertise within a specific area and other stakeholders who will use their knowledge of market needs to engage in discussions, taking an initial proposal for a standard through several iterations until a unified consensus is reached before a standard is published. The due diligence required to ensure trustworthy, but practical standards means that the process may take up to three years to finalise a standard. It is important to note that standards are not static documents and may be updated or revised to take into account changes in technology.
How can I check that a product is compliant with the relevant standards?
Generally, all products sold within the Extended Single Market in the European Economical Area (EEA) will have the CE mark on them. This mark is a declaration that the product meets all the legal requirements for it to be sold throughout the EEA. This ensure that products enjoy the same level of health, safety and environmental protection. The CE is part of the EU's harmonisation legislation that ensures the quality of products throughout the EEA while providing a fair standing ground for all manufacturers. If a more in-depth understanding of a product's compliance to standards is required, then it would be necessary to identify the standards relevant to the product or service in question. For example, the EU provides a list of standards required for different products/services according to their relevant categories. Likewise, standards agencies such as the IEEE provide their standards documentation for consumer perusal. These relevant standards can be compared to the certifications, compliance statements and user manuals that are provided by the manufacturer, thereby verifying that the product is indeed in line with the required standards. It is also worth considering the reputation of the manufacturer. History of instances of non-compliance, product recalls, and actions taken to manage incidents are an indication of the seriousness of the manufacturer/service provider to the adherence to engineering standards. If in doubt, it is always worth seeking expert advice from engineering professionals who may lend their own insights and experience in interpreting documentation.
If engineers need to adhere to standards, why do accidents still occur?
The standards that guide engineering practices are generated by human experts who, albeit experts in their respective areas, are still human. In their drafting, the standards are based on known risks and anticipated scenarios. However, unanticipated circumstances, extreme natural changes, or evolving technologies may surpass the expected scenarios for which the standards were written. The Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse, for example, instigated additional research in aerodynamics and elasticity of bridges which were not fully known at the time and hence, no standard could have anticipated the effects that led to the bridge collapse at the time. Likewise, standards and protocols in aviation safety were changed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, adapting to circumstances which were not previously anticipated.
It is also worth noting that modern engineering products have evolved into being fairly complex systems consisting of multiple parts working and interacting together. Thus, although all individual components may separately adhere to the relevant standards, it it is the complete system, and their interactions that must be understood. Failures in one part of a system can cascade lead to accidents even though the individual components would have adhered to standards.
Although standards provide guidelines for manufacturers and service providers, the standards to which a product is held against requires specific conditions which are met only when the proper maintenance of the product or systems is maintained. All mechanical parts are subject to wear and tear which degrades the overall performance and safety of engineering systems. And thus, unless proper maintenance is performed, systems which would have initially met the necessary standards may no longer be safe and prone to accidents.
Machines are operated by humans and humans are prone to error. Although standard operating procedures also exist to attempt to mitigate human error, fatigue, miscommunication and distraction may trigger unfortunate events that eventually may lead to accidents.
The above discussion assumes that the manufacturer producing a product or service provider as well as the operators operating the product/service are individuals acting in good faith. There is, unfortunately, also the possibility that a manufacturer does not act in full compliance to the industry standards. This may be to cut corners for profit, to seek competitive edge, or a myriad of other nefarious intents.
Engineering standards aim to reduce the probability of accidents and improve safety. They provide a framework and guidelines for engineers to follow, but they cannot, on their own, guarantee zero risks. Accidents can, and will still occur, due to various factors. The engineer's duty is then to make continual efforts to enhance safety, address emerging risks and learn from past incidents.
Engineers generally act responsibly, ethically and in good faith to ensure that their work is of benefit to society. Although there are historical evidence of technological failures, there are much more examples of instances when technology functioned the way it was intended to, but which remain undocumented for becoming mundane.
For the general consumer, when making purchasing decisions of high-stake products or services, it is worth noting the reputation and track record of the product or service provider. Researching reliable reviews and ratings to help the decision making. Personal research and due diligence, looking for the relevant standards, product manuals and compliance certifications, will help mitigate potential risks. In this manner, we may all engage in the benefits of technology with minds at ease.
 Kyle Ashdown, 2017, "Under Pressure: The Story of the Infamous Ford-Firestone Controversy", CarThrottle, https://www.carthrottle.com/post/under-pressure-the-story-of-the-infamous-ford-firestone-controversy/
 BBC, 2017, "Samsung Confirms Battery Faults as Cause of Note 7 Fires", https://www.bbc.com/news/business-38714461