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SR 99 tunnel opening
Seattle’s new SR 99 tunnel opened in April. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons user SounderBruce / cc4.0)

Apparently it’s not a good idea to push the “Remind Me Tomorrow” button when prompted to install a software update for a tunnel’s fire-control system.

WSDOT plans to close the new SR 99 tunnel in both directions under downtown Seattle starting at 10pm Friday night through 8am Saturday morning to upgrade the fire-control system installed along with the new tunnel, it announced Thursday. After the shiny new tunnel opened in February, WSDOT said it would conduct monthly overnight maintenance that would close one direction of traffic, but given that the fire-control system must be turned off to install the update, “for the safety of the public, that will require a full closure of the tunnel in both directions,” it said.

“The SR 99 tunnel is one of the safest tunnels ever constructed,” according to a WSDOT web page describing the new tunnel, and it’s full of tech. Fiber-optic cables run down the ceiling of the tunnel from entrance to exit, and a network of sensors divides the tunnel in dozens of sections to quickly spot an outbreak of fire. After a human tunnel operator confirms through a camera that something is actually burning, a sprinkler system activates over that section.

The fire-control system is described starting around 1:30 in this WSDOT video:

But like everything else good and bad in the world, the system is of course controlled by software, and modern software requires regular updates. A (quite funny) Twitter account that parodies the limitations of the internet of things noticed Friday morning that WSDOT planned to close the tunnel “for a software update,” prompting the agency’s social media squad to clarify that the tunnel itself isn’t run by software.

Privately, people who develop software for a living will confess that a lot of software is creakier than most people realize; developing software is extremely complicated, and people make mistakes. For better or worse, however, internet-connected software will continue its march into just about every corner of every thing you see around you, and modern thinking around software delivery at least ensures that when problems are noticed they can be fixed pretty quickly.

But just for now, software isn’t running the tunnel. WSDOT’s plan got perhaps the ultimate seal of approval.

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