THE ANCIENT COMPUTERS IN THE BOEING 737 MAX ARE HOLDING UP A FIX
Every 737 Max has two flight control computers. These take some of the workload off of pilots, whether that’s through full automation (such as autopilot) or through fine control adjustments during manual flight. These computers can literally fly the airplane — they have authority over major control surfaces and throttles — which means that any malfunction could turn catastrophic in a hurry. So it’s more important for manufacturers to choose hardware that’s proven to be safe, rather than run a fleet of airplanes on some cutting-edge tech with bugs that have yet to be worked out.
Boeing took that ethos to heart for the Max, sticking with the Collins Aerospace FCC-730 series, first built in 1996. Each computer features a pair of single-core, 16-bit processors that run independently of each other, which reduces computing power but also keeps a faulty processor from taking down the entire system.
Even by late-’90s consumer tech standards, the FCC-730s were behind the curve. By the time they went to market, Nintendo had already replaced its 16-bit SNES console with the Nintendo 64 (the first game console to use — you guessed it — a 64-bit CPU), and IBM had created the world’s first dual-core processor.
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Of course, old and slow isn’t always worse: the 737 Next Generation series is the safest narrow-body airplane ever made, in part due to these reliable, if unspectacular, computers. To keep costs down, Boeing wanted to reuse them in the next iteration of the 737 as well. The Max might still be flying today if those computers simply had to perform the same tasks that they had for almost 30 years.
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