Ever since I flew through Dallas/Fort-Worth International Airport back in mid-August, the presence of windshield wipers on the airport’s computer-controlled and entirely automated Skylink people-movers has been bugging me—seriously. Because why do trains without drivers need windshield wipers? I needed answers. So I called DFW Public Affairs.
They answered with hold music: The kind of perky, up-tempo piano music no one actually listens to (or composes, for that matter) interspersed with reminders that following TSA instructions will make your trip through DFW “more pleasant and secure.” After about fifteen seconds of this, the line clicked and a woman with a heavy smoker’s voice intoned “Public Affairs.” I explained that I was calling with a question about their Skylink trains—and, honestly, even I think this question is weird—but the woman gave a little “hm,” as though she spends her days fielding questions like this, and then told me that she was transferring my call to Tomas Rivera, who turned out to be the Assistant Vice-President for Airport Transporation.
And it was back to the hold music. “D-F-W airport dot com!” said the male announcer. “Just a mouse click away!” answered the female announcer, and I was inevitably reminded of the scene from Airplane! in which the male and female voices argue over the public address system about whether the white or red lines indicate a no-parking zone. After about a minute on hold (during which I imagine Mr. Rivera, when briefed on the purpose of my call, said something to the effect of: “He wants to know what?”) the line clicked, cutting off the voices (“Skylink!” “DFW’s bi-directional…”) and Mr. Rivera picked up.
I explained who I was and why I was calling and asked the question: Why do driverless trains have windshield wipers? “They’re for when we need to manually move the car around the maintenance yard,” he said. “They’re not for passenger service.” Around the maintenance yard? “Or during an unscheduled malfunction,” he continued (and I thought: “an unscheduled malfunction”?). “In the front-right corner of each car, there’s a panel—that’s locked when the train is in passenger service—that contains controls so the train can be driven for maintenance purposes.” I asked a few follow-up questions (no, the wipers do not activate automatically when it rains; yes, the panel is always locked) and then thanked him for his time and let him get back to the business of running the airport.
It reinforces the size of the airport, even an airport that is the third-busiest in the world and is so large that it has its own ZIP code, that it has an assistant vice-president whose sole area of responsibility is transportation within a structure that is itself designed for transport. Size also appears to make things like brand identity and logo use guidelines that much more important, which I think is funny: While it’s important for an airport to appear professional in its communications so as to impart confidence in its operations, its not as though DFW has a whole lot of competition in North Texas. (But isn’t that the point? Their competition isn’t in North Texas—it’s at KCI [which has a great website] or at MEM [which does not].)
So after all of this, a return to the inverse of my original question: Why not have automatic-activation wipers on an automated train? This would (a) reinforce the notion that the computer controlling your trip knows best and therefore (b) dissolve some concerns about placing control in the hands of an automated system.
It’s also entirely possible that trips on automated transportation systems have become routine to the point of tedium, and that we no longer need to be placated by total imitation of a human driver.