Monthly Archives: July 2014

Black cab blues

Letter to The Times, 9 June 2014.

Portable digital technology is a challenge to the old-fashioned organisation of taxis and hire cars

Sir, This week London is going to halt when angry cabbies protest about the Uber car service. They say Uber is taking their work but does not have to respect the same regulations.

Since Uber and Hailo appeared people have begun to realise that the private hire and taxi industry has enormous potential. As a trade, we should embrace these changes and accept that global taxi brands are coming. I think Uber is wrong in seeking to eliminate the taxi operator altogether, rather than working with existing networks. Private operators already have two thirds of the market and providing an excellent service.

Uber may be the Goliath of the taxi industry but the market is gearing up to meet the challenge head on. We live in dynamic times.

Chris Jordan

Phone use slows drivers’ reactions more than drink

The Times, Sean O’Neill, 9 June 2014.

Study shows that motorists’ reactions are 26 per cent slower when speaking on a hands-free mobile, and 37 per cent slower when texting

The penalty for using a mobile phone while driving could be increased after research showed that texting and talking had a greater impact on reaction times than drink and drugs.

A study of drivers aged 17 to 24 by the Transport Research Laboratory showed that motorists’ reactions were 26.5 per cent slower when speaking on a hands-free mobile, and 37 per cent slower when texting at the wheel.

Previous research showed that reaction times slowed by 13 per cent when drivers were at the drink-drive limit and by 21 per cent after using cannabis.

Using a handheld mobile slowed reaction times by 46 per cent and drivers were far more likely to swerve when texting than when high on cannabis.

The Department for Transport said that it would consider the research in its discussions with the Ministry of Justice on court penalties. A spokesman said: “Using a mobile phone while driving can ruin lives so we are determined that we take strong action.”

The fine for using a phone while driving is £100, up to a maximum of £1,000.

New car sales growth leaves boom of the Lawson era in slipstream

The Times, Robert Lea (Industrial Editor), 6 June 2014.

During the Lawson boom, the nation was running around in millions of Ford Escorts, Vauxhall Cavaliers and MG Metros. Nigel Lawson’s defining feelgood factor of the Thatcher era also led to 26 consecutive months of growing sales of new cars from 1987 to 1989.

Twenty-five years later and that record has been eclipsed. New-car sales up 7.7 per cent last month means that registration statistics have risen in the past 27 months, growth that began even before George Osborne dared to use the word “recovery”.

While the Fiesta and Astra — both much remodelled — span the age, 2014 buyers have created a market that has seen the rise of the Nissan Qashqai and the renaissance of the Fiat 500.

The boom has been fired by a cocktail of reasons. They include the diversion by manufacturers of vehicles to Britain during the sales slump in Europe; many households benefiting from the billions of pounds of payment protection insurance compensation payouts; and the latest financial product from the industry, the personal contract purchase, whereby motorists keep a car for three or four years with monthly payments before swapping it for another model at the end of their term.

Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), added some further ingredients. “Increasingly confident consumers have been drawn to some fantastic new products, innovative technologies, improved fuel economy and competitive deals,” he said.

Total new sales in the first five months of the year were up 11.6 per cent at 1.05 million, putting 2014 sales on course to break 2.4 million. Sales of 194,000 vehicles in May were the strongest for that month since 2004.

Growth in new cars being bought by businesses outstripped private buyers and the rest of the market, rising by 26 per cent last month.

In the commercial vehicle sector, demand for new vans was up 18 per cent in the month and 13 per cent higher in the year to date, though that was partially offset by a fall of about 20 per cent in the smaller market for trucks.

With monthly comparatives for car sales getting ever harder after a strong 2013, Mr Hawes warned that some heat could start coming out of the market. “With the SMMT forecasting an overall rise of about 6 per cent over the year, the coming months should see some levelling off in growth rates,” he said.


GM chief blames culture of neglect for deadly failure

The Times, Alexandra Frean, 6 June 2014.

General Motors has dismissed 15 staff, disciplined five others and blamed a “pattern of incompetence and neglect” over more than a decade for an ignition switch failure in its Cobalt cars that led to at least 13 deaths.

In a brutally honest speech to about 1,000 employees in Michigan, Mary Barra, the chief executive, said that it was vital to “do the right thing”. She said that the company would compensate victims and their families and change its procedures and culture.

“This is not just another business crisis for GM,” she said. “I never want to put this behind us. I want to keep this painful experience permanently in our collective memories . . . because I never want this to happen again.”

Ms Barra, a former engineer, told employees to bring any safety concerns straight to her if they did not trust their supervisors.

Outlining the findings of an investigation by Anton Valukas, a former US attorney, into the faulty switch and the failure to act upon it for more than a decade, Ms Barra said that GM “operated in silos, with a number of individuals seemingly looking for reasons not to act, instead of finding ways to protect our customers.”

She said that individuals repeatedly “failed to disclose critical pieces of information” that could have enabled the company to respond properly to the problems with the ignition switches, which were first noticed in 2001. The fault caused engines to stall, shutting off both the power steering and airbags. A congressional panel investigating the issue revealed in April that the company changed the ignition switch in 2006 but did not change its part number, effectively masking the fix and making it harder for crash experts to identify the cause of the problem.

Ms Barra said that more than half of the 15 individuals dismissed were “senior executives . . . going into the top levels of the company”. They includes Ray DeGiorgio, the engineer who signed off on the change in the flawed part without changing its number, and Gary Altman, a programme engineering manager.

Mr Valukas’s report confirmed Ms Barra’s claim that she was unaware of the flawed switch until after she took over as chief executive last December. It suggested that the company initially failed to address the design flaw because it was regarded as a customer satisfaction issue, rather than safety. It also failed to link the stalling engines with the failure of airbags to deploy.

The company is opening a compensation plan to be run by Ken Feinberg, who handled compensation for 9/11 and the BP oil spill, for the families of those who lost their lives as a result of the problem and those who were seriously injured. The fund will start accepting claims in August. Although GM estimates that 13 deaths were associated with the faulty switch, lawyers for victims’ families say the real number is higher.

Michelle Krebs, an analyst at AutoTrader, said that Ms Barr’s speech had served not just to reassure GM customers, but also to rally employees. “This was her Pearl Harbour moment and she pulled it off. The fact that she said, ‘I don’t want us to forget this’, was really important,” Ms Krebs said.


RAC calls for incentives to get rid of dirty old diesels

The Times, Phillip Pank (Transport Correspondent), 6 June 2014.

Ministers should consider offering financial incentives to force the dirtiest diesel cars off the roads and save some of the 29,000 people killed each year by dirty air, the RAC Foundation says.

It recommends tightening limits on particulate matter — particles that can cause serious illness — to bring them into line with World Health Organisation (WHO) limits, which are twice as stringent as those currently in place.

Tiny particles from diesel engines, brakes and tyres have been linked to asthma, lung cancer, heart conditions and diabetes. The government estimates that the health cost associated with dirty air is up to £19 billion a year, of which £10 billion is attributed to transport.

The WHO calculates that almost 30,000 people die prematurely each year in Britain as a result of particulate air pollution. Using the organisation’s threshold, 96 per cent of people living in towns and cities are exposed to dangerous levels of particulate air pollution.

The RAC Foundation says in its report, published today, that removing the finest particles from the air would have a bigger impact on life expectancy in England and Wales than eliminating all road deaths or passive smoking. It says consideration should be given to adopting the WHO guidelines.

It also calls on the government to launch a scrappage scheme offering financial incentives to motorists to trade in older diesel cars for cleaner vehicles. The last government introduced a scheme entitling buyers of new cars a £2,000 discount if they replaced vehicles that were at least ten years old.

The number of diesel cars has risen from 1.6 million in 1994 to ten million today — one in three cars — as motorists seek greater fuel efficiency and carmakers promote diesel vehicles with lower CO2 emissions. “This is a consequence of the focus on climate change,” the report says.

The report also claims that using vehicle excise duty and company car tax incentives to improve fuel efficiency has increased the number of diesel cars, which produce more harmful pollution than comparable petrol models.

European standards have helped to reduce emissions from new diesel cars but there is a lag as most cars remain on the road for more than a decade.

Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, said: “Many people believed that by buying diesels they would get better fuel consumption and help fight global warming through low CO2 emissions. But policy-makers missed the impact older diesel models in particular have on health in urban areas.”

A Department for Transport spokesman said: “We have no current plans to introduce a scrappage scheme for older diesel vehicles.”


Tycoons go to war over superhighway for electric cars

The Times, Ben Webster (Environment Editor), 6 June 2014.

A legal battle between two wealthy entrepreneurs is delaying plans for a “superhighway” that would allow owners of electric cars to drive most of the length of the country with just one short break to re-charge.

Elon Musk, the California-based billionaire who was the inspiration for Tony Stark in the Iron Man films, will tomorrow hand over the keys to the first five British buyers of his £70,000 Tesla S electric car, including the Fifty Shades of Grey author EL James.

However, Musk, who is also planning a manned base on Mars, is being prevented from installing rapid charging points at motorway service stations that would give his cars enough electricity in 20 minutes to drive more than 150 miles. Dale Vince, a former New Age traveller who owns Ecotricity, a wind energy company, has secured a high court injunction against Tesla Motors after it approached Welcome Break, the service station operator.

Mr Vince says that he has exclusive contracts with the major service station operators and an agreement with Tesla under which it was given confidential information. He argues that Tesla would be breaching that agreement by approaching the service stations directly.

Ecotricity has stopped work on two charging points for Tesla at South Mimms services on the M25 in Hertfordshire and Hopwood Park on the M42 south of Birmingham. It is unclear when plans will proceed for several more “supercharger” points. Mr Vince said that he had been working for three years on installing charging points at service stations for all types of electric car and had agreed to accommodate the Tesla car, which has a much bigger battery and requires a more powerful charger.

“They wanted the contracts we have with motorway operators to be broken so they could enter into their own contracts. We had offered them everything they needed,” Mr Vince said. He claimed Tesla sent Ecotricity an email last month that he described as a “declaration of war”.

“They said they were flying into Britain in a couple of days and they were going to blacken our name with the government and the motorway operators,” he said. “It was a very threatening and dark email.”

He said he was concerned that Tesla could use its influence at Westminster. Nick Clegg appointed Mr Musk last year to advise the government on how to persuade more drivers to switch to electric cars.

Mr Vince said that he had been willing to work with Tesla even though he considered it “wasteful” that the company was demanding exclusive parking spaces at re-charging points rather than agreeing to share spaces with other types of electric car.

Tesla said that it was unable to comment because of the injunction. A spokeswoman said: “We are committing to having superchargers for our customers.”

Edmund King, president of the AA, said he would like the companies to settle their differences. “We must overcome the ‘range anxiety’ which deters people from buying electric cars and we do not need squabbling over charging points,” he said. “When there is serious uptake of these cars we are going to need thousands more charging points.”


Bring on the Googlebots to run everything

The Times, Giles Coren, 31 May 2014.

Why stop at driverless cars? Robots wouldn’t stone people. Or vote racists in. Or get involved in child abuse . . .

I had a bit of an epiphany on Thursday while reading this paper’s report on the new Google car, which not only drives itself, as such prototypes have always done, but in its new manifestation does away with steering wheel, gas pedal and brake altogether, removing the option of manual override in an emergency and rendering the motorcar completely independent of human will.

The vehicle doesn’t need front seat controls, says Google, because “our software and sensors do all the work”. It can be summoned by its driver with a phone app, senses objects up to 200 metres away so can never crash, and joins automatically with other cars on motorways to form a sort of “train” that will make huge reductions in energy use. Meanwhile, inside, you can get on much more safely with reading, eating, texting, snogging, snapchatting your naked goolies and all the other things you currently do when driving but know you probably shouldn’t.

A fully automated car. Well, I certainly knew what I was going to write about that, never mind that it could prevent 600,000 road deaths annually. I have backed myself over the years into a broadly anti-tech position on this sort of thing (mostly out of laziness and the professional need to have a position) and was all set to write, “Oh the humanity! Whither the open road? Où sont les voitures d’antan?” and all that jazz, riffing on the freedoms we will surrender, warning of the possible risk to human life in the event of mechanical failure (which they’ll never have thought of), and waxing nostalgic over the old MG of my student years, whose boot you had to open with a crowbar on cold mornings to get at the jammed fuel pump and give it a whack with a hammer so you could start, as long as you’d remembered to tape a carrier bag over the torn plastic quarter-light and were wearing wellies against the tidal flow that came up off wet roads through the rotted sills — the sort of things that contributed to real motoring, the authentic poetry of the highway and all that is good and sound in man’s relationship with machine.

But then I read the adjoining analysis by my semi-namesake, Giles Whittell, not only endorsing but positively drooling over the future heralded by the Google car — he saw a commuting revolution, time regained by the end of traffic jams and parking delays, suburbs reborn and cities decluttered — and I thought, hang on a minute, he’s right.

And in fact, if Giles is right, and driving should just be left to Google because Google knows best and computers and robots are more effective than people can ever be, then why stop at cars? It’s not just our roads that are clogged and smelly and dangerous, the whole world is utterly buggered. The human project has blatantly failed. Surely Google should be doing everything? Look, let’s go through the paper and see what would happen.

Okay, the front page: “British girls become the fattest in Europe”. That wouldn’t happen if we replaced girls with Googlebots, would it? Or at least restricted their food intake to what Google, with its access to all human knowledge on the subject of nutrition, recommended. Nor would two thirds of British adults be overweight. The obesity crisis is a facet of human weakness. A failure to operate according to logic. Fatness is a disease of the mind, not the body. Two thirds of British people are fat because two thirds of British people are mad and stupid. There’s nothing wrong with their bellies, it’s their heads that want sorting out. So wire their slack, gibbering brains into Google and watch their arses shrink before your eyes.

Now, the sidebar: “Coe named front runner for troubled BBC Trust”. Okay, let’s see: Chris Patten was finished off, as the piece says, “by the fallout from the Jimmy Savile sex scandal”. The problem was a corporate shortage of knowledge, a lack of omniscience and a failure to intuit the bleeding obvious. If Google had been chairman of the trust, it would have just run Savile’s face through a pervert-recognition programme and screamed “Paedo!!!” — with none of the fudge and fiddle that cost so many jobs and so much money.

Turning to page three, I see that Stephen Hawking has cobbled together some bogus equation to work out England’s chances of winning the World Cup, but it’s only a formula for running random stats and Google does that automatically, a billion times in an eye-blink. Replace the old boffin with a computer and you get the same result — “none at all” — with much less fuss.

As we go through the paper, it’s just story after story showing the ways in which humans are simply not fit to organise their own affairs. A family of Googlebots, for example, would not stone one of its junior members to death outside a Lahore courthouse, would it? The behaviour is not rational, not productive, not contiguous with any notion of human interest that one would programme into a machine. It is an example of humans as savage wild animals unfit for any sort of role in society and ripe for replacement by machinery.

And would a Google Europe lurch without thought towards the populist right and elect an army of racists to high office? It would not. Would a computerised television entertainer sexually abuse children? Would a British-made smartphone at large in California shoot girls because it was a virgin? Would an internet singing tutor spank its young male students? Would a legislature of robot representatives spend £750,000 a year on alcohol as the House of Commons did in 2013?

Would Scottish Googlebots in disagreement with each other about whether to secede from British Googlebots fail to decide anything because they had got all their sums wrong? Would a Brazil run on computerised logic invest £6.5 billion in football stadiums for the most reviled World Cup tournament in history at the expense of education, healthcare and vital infrastructure for its impoverished people?

The answer is . . . well, don’t ask me, I’m only human. Let’s run the questions through Google. Yup, as I thought, the answer is “no”. Humanity just cannot be trusted to do anything for itself any more. The Google car is merely a metaphor for our total failure as a race. There is nothing for it now but to settle back with a book or a nice magazine and wait to arrive at wherever the car is taking us. At best, we might lean forward occasionally and indulge in a little backseat driving.

But of course there is no one sitting in the front to take any notice.


‘Look, no hands’ Google unveils first self-drive car

The Times, Rhys Blakely, 29 May 2014.

Google says its new custom-built car could prevent more than half a million road deaths a year, but shouldn’t it have a steering wheel, some might ask?

Apparently not.

The company has been working on self-driving cars for several years, ­installing specialised equipment in modified conventional vehicles. These have given the person sitting in the driving seat the option of grabbing the wheel or slamming the brakes on should something go wrong.

That is becoming old hat. Its latest ­diminutive electric-powered runabout won’t have a steering wheel, accelerator pedal, or brake pedal . . . “because they don’t need them,” Google says. “Our software and sensors do all the work.”

The top speed is capped at 25mph and the prototype car can be summoned through a smartphone app. Its sensors can detect objects more than 200 metres away. Detailed maps help it to navigate the road ahead.

Inside it has two seats with seatbelts, a space for passengers’ belongings, buttons to start and stop, and a screen that shows the route — and that’s about it. Google plans to build 100 of them.

Its looks have already been derided — one pundit called it “a golf cart wearing a silly hat” — but if all goes according to plan, it could herald the biggest revolution in mass transport since the invention of the horseless carriage.

Cold calculation lies behind the ­design: the car is meant to ­appear ­unthreatening, to avoid spooking the public as technology stands poised to transform another facet of daily life.

Sebastian Thrun, the artificial intelligence guru who first led the Google car project, believes robotic cars could cut global road deaths — the biggest killer of young adults — by half, which would mean saving 600,000 lives a year.

He was inspired by the death of a childhood friend in a car crash. However, the technology is also likely to be used on the battlefield: he began by ­developing an autonomous vehicle for a competition run by the US military.

The prototypes are very basic, Google admits, and most experts believe it will take several years before its commercial production. “We want to learn from them and adapt them as quickly as possible — but they will take you where you want to go at the push of a button,” the company said.

It has been testing cars that can navigate public roads “with only occasional human intervention” in California for several years. During that time its self-steering cars have crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, cruised down Hollywood Boulevard and circled Lake Tahoe.

However, the prototype appears to fail newly introduced rules for automatic cars in California, which demand that the driver passes a special course and can take over control at any time.

Google envisages a time when chains of autonomous cars form “trains” on motorways, slashing commuting times and saving large amounts of energy.

Significant hurdles remain, however: driverless cars still struggle in situations that humans deal with intuitively – such as when traffic is being directed by a police officer around an accident. The automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range-finder to “see” other traffic.

The project — codenamed “chauffeur” — is being championed by Sergey Brin, the billionaire Google co-founder. “It does really feel different,” he said.

“Once you take the steering wheel and the pedals out of the vehicle, it’s different to the passenger, it’s different to the software engineer, it’s a different deal. It’s a pretty big discontinuity,” he told The New York Times.

Boris seeks bike sponsor with £38m as bank jumps off early

The Times, Phillip Tank (Transport Correspondent), 2 June 2014

Boris Johnson is to announce his plan to sign up a £38.5 million sponsor for his London cycle hire scheme after Barclays quit the project early.

The mayor of London has written to the biggest 200 advertisers seeking interest in the scheme, which cost his transport group £11 million last year and led to accusations that Barclays failed to pay enough in return for the advertising exposure. The bank withheld some money because the cycle hire business missed early targets.

Mr Johnson had expected Barclays to pay £50 million, but the bank has paid £20.4 million over four years. It decided against an extension to 2018 and is offering Transport for London a financial incentive to leave before its current contract expires in August next year.

An annual fee of at least £5.5 million over seven years will allow the new sponsor to put its logo across the 10,000 bicycles.

Tom Bogdanowicz, of the London Cycling Campaign, said: “We share Boris’s view that Barclays got incredible value out of the publicity and it should have paid the full amount.”

Barclays announced its withdrawal in December at a time of concern over the safety of cyclists in London following six deaths in two weeks. It said its decision was part of a strategic review of its sponsorship deals.

Figures published last week showed that 14 cyclists were killed in London last year, the same number as in 2012, and serious injuries fell to 475 from 657 in 2012.

The Times is campaigning for more investment in cycle infrastructure to save lives and encourage cycling.