Wednesday, February 8, 2012

First Thoughts

Well, here goes.

I have been posting thoughts on the net for quite a few years, firstly on Compuserve, and then on my web site ( . Now I thought that its time I tried a Blog. Bear with me, I am a newbie to this land. I would like to format this a bit better later, but the options seem a bit limited unless I dig deeper.

For today, I would like to talk about speed cameras, Google cars and the future of transport. Wow.

Along with most of the drivers in the UK, I have been 'caught' once by a speed camera and fined. I was driving at 38 mph in a zone that had recently been reduced from 40 to 30. It was quiet, little traffic, no pedestrians. This is a pretty common event - I personally know several people who were caught by the same camera. I'm not a perfect driver, but I have been driving for about 50 years, in many countries, with no accidents. My gripe with using these devices in a shotgun approach is that they are, literally, stupid. Speed cameras know nothing about what is going on, by today's standards they are really dumb.

All drivers know (but not necessarily comply) that the appropriate speed at a given time and place depends on many factors:

Driver - condition, experience, ability (tired, angry, distracted, drunk, slow, quick...)
Car - condition, capability (brakes, acceleration, road holding, tyres, headlights...)
Local geography - straight, curve, hilly..
Local surroundings - houses, schools, factories, countryside, hedges
Traffic - vehicles, pedestrians, cars, bicycles, 14 wheelers, busy, quiet
Road surface - wide, narrow, smooth, rough, camber, greasy, wet, icy, dry..
Weather - clear, rain, fog, snow...
Lighting - daylight, night, moon, street lighting

These come to mind easily, I'm sure there are more. The point is that speed limits and cameras are based on only a couple of the above (local issues). They are inevitably a rough compromise at a level somewhere in the appropriate speed range. They know nothing about traffic or weather, they don't even know if its day or night. If a suitable speed at a location could be between say 20 and 45 mph, then the speed limit will be set at 30, probably, or maybe 40. It depends. Partly it depends on experience (number of accidents), but its also political. The location where I was caught had been reduced after a campaign by residents (though recently it appears this may be reversed). Other similar locations have different limits. Enough of that, I want to emphasise that speed is a complex issue, and should not have to be simplified by traditional approaches.

We have now entered the age of the automatic driverless car, thanks to Google and other pioneers.
It will take a while, largely because of people's attitudes (they don't trust them yet), and legislation, but it is coming for sure. It would be a great shame if speed control of these cars is simply rubber stamped by existing speed limits. They would be capable of controlling their speed much more intelligently than that. In fact, existing speed limits should gradually wither and die as smart cars become the norm ( I'm looking a bit into the future here, don't expect this next year). Eventually they should be seen rather like the man with the red flag who had to walk in front of automobiles. (Oh well, maybe they have to stay for motor bikes).

I wanted to say a bit about the future of transport, but this is getting a bit long, so I'll just keep it brief for now - maybe more in a later post. I haven't got the hang of this blogging yet.

Note that Google cars don't have to be owned by the users - just get on the net and ask for a car journey, and one turns up at your door, takes you where you want (maybe picks up someone on the way if thats OK with you), and then goes off for another task, or parks somewhere cheap. You can be unqualified, tired, or even drunk if you want - no problem.

There are many developments as well as the Google car - the use of carbon fibre to create light bodied cars which could have smaller batteries and hence be cheaper and more feasible than electric cars are at present - see for instance BMW carbon fibre cars (though being BMW, these are not cheap). Also there are new approaches to the whole business of designing and building cars, from using new computer control methods to combine many companies (see Rocky Mountain Institute) and slash development times, to using small units to build simple designs cheaply (don't have ref to hand, but Science Friday covered this a while back talking to a guy from the U.K. - hurray). And then there is Tesla. Of course, GM isn't going to go away any time soon - the US government won't allow it - yet  - because of the effect on employment apart from anything else. But things they are a-changing.

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